Revolutionary War Historical Article
Never Too Old:
The Story of Captain Samuel Whittemore
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the February 1997 Edition of the The Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
It can be argued that April 19th, 1775 is the most important date in American history. The Battle of Lexington, Concord and Battle Road was the opening engagement of the American Revolution. And, it is not surprising that after two hundred and twenty-two years, some of the details are still the subject of some debate.
Since our readership is very familiar with the battle, we will only present an overview of the battle as background to our biography.
On April 14th, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage (1) received orders from London to do something decisive to end the unrest in Massachusetts. He had already taken some steps, but had advised London that his force of 3,500 Regulars needed reinforcements, and requested an additional 6,000 men.
Nevertheless, on April 19th, abiding by his orders, he launched an expedition to seize the military stores alleged to be stored in the town of Concord, some 18 miles inland.
General Gage choose Colonel Francis Smith (2), who had served in North America for 12 years and was overweight and slow thinking, to lead the expedition. Smith's selection has baffled historians, but, perhaps it was the very fact that he was "slow" that prompted General Gage to appoint him. Gage certainly did not want an aggressive Officer to lead the delicate expedition, Gage wanted to avoid any possible confrontations.
Smith was given command of an elite corps of about 700 men, consisting of the flank companies (3) of the 5th, 10th, 18th, 23rd, 38th, 43rd, 52nd and 59th Regiments. Major John Pitcairn (4) of the Royal Marines was selected as second in command.
At about 5 a.m. Major Pitcairn's advanced guard came into contact with Captain John Parker's (5) Lexington Minutemen and the battle started. Sweeping the Lexington Minutemen aside, leaving eight dead and ten wounded, Smith advanced on Concord.
As the morning wore on it became painfully obvious to Smith that he was in trouble. Massachusetts minutemen and militia units were arriving in great numbers and already out numbered him. Before he could assemble his units, which were searching nearby farms for the military stores he was sent to destroy, fighting broke out at the North Bridge. The battle was on! Smith led his small army down a narrow road toward the safety of Boston, fighting every inch of the way.
At the North Bridge an incident occurred that was to have a profound effect on the day's events. A soldier from the 43rd Regiment was wounded and lay slumped against the bridge's railing. When the Patriots forced their way across the bridge, the soldier was dispatched with a hatchet. Later, Captain Lawrence Parsons, retreating with his his four companies of Light Infantry recrossed the North Bridge, saw their dead fellow soldier, and from the severity of the wound, assumed he had been scalped and his ears cut off. The rumor spread through the entire British expedition that the colonists were not taking prisoners and were scalping and mutilating the wounded!
The running battle was almost won by the Massachusetts militia. Smith's men had formed up for the expedition at 8 p.m. the previous night, marched the18 miles from Boston, another six miles back to the outskirts of Lexington, and had been fighting for several hours. They were completely exhausted. Further, they had only been issued thirty rounds of ammunition (the normal quantity) and many were already out of ammunition. Some historians have suggested that only the severe discipline of the Regulars saved the expedition, but accounts by the private soldiers suggests that the generally accepted idea that the colonists were giving no quarter encouraged them to this superhuman effort.
At Lexington, Smith's battered force was rescued by General Hugh Percy (6) who had led the First Brigade out of Boston. The Brigade consisted of the line companies of the 4th, 23rd and 47th Regiments and 460 Royal Marines, for a total force of some 1,400 men. After an hour's rest for Smith's exhausted men, Percy ordered the retreat to Boston. Percy was continually attacked all the way back.
When the British Force finally battled its way to safety, they had lost 73 killed, 174 wounded, 19 of them officers, and 26 missing. The American losses were 49 killed, 39 to 41 wounded and 5 missing. The American casualty figure is disproportionate to the normal ratio of killed versus wounded, 1 to 3. Because of the incident at the North Bridge, the British Soldiers were not taking prisoners, and were putting the American wounded to the bayonet!
Most people believe that the Americans picked up their muskets, left their farms and fought the battle as individuals. This is incorrect, for the most part they fought in company strength units (30 to 50 men), commanded by their elected captains. Their advantage was that they were far better organized then the British believed. But there were individuals and the story of Captain Samuel Whittemore is an excellent example. He demonstrated the willingness and the ability to fight, contrary to the popular belief of most British Officers, who felt the colonists were "cowardly and would never fight the Crown", until April 19th, 1775, that is.
CAPTAIN SAMUEL WHITTEMORE
Samuel Whittemore was born in England on July 27th, 1695, and came to North America as a Captain in His Majesty's Dragoons, fighting the French in 1745. He was involved in the capture of the French stronghold, Fort Louisburg, and there captured a decorative french officer's sword, which he cherished for the rest of his life. About its capture, all Sam would say is that its previous owner had "died suddenly".
After the war he stayed in the colonies, purchasing a farm in Menotomy (now Arlington, Massachusetts). He married Elizabeth Spring, and after her death remarried to Mrs. Esther Prentice. By his two wives he had three sons and five daughters. His house, on Massachusetts Avenue, in Arlington, still exists. (7)
In 1758, war again broke out between England and France. And again, Fort Louisburg had to be taken. At 64 years of age, Sam volunteered and joined a Colonial Regiment which reduced the fort to rubble. He then went on and joined General James Wolf in the successful assault on Quebec.
The 1763 Indian Wars in the west next attracted Sam's attention. Leaving his wife, children and grandchildren to attend the farm, he rode off to join the colonial force launched against the Ottawa chief, Pontiac. He returned home some months later with a brace of dueling pistols as a souvenir, and here again, all Sam would say is that the previous owner "died suddenly."
It is recorded that Sam believed in American independence stating that he wanted his descendants to be able to enact their own laws and not be subject to a distant king. So, it is not surprising when he again took up arms on April 19th, 1775.
That night he watched as Colonel Smith led his column of 700 soldiers through Menotomy. He was probably concerned, but the British had come out of Boston before and there had not been any serious trouble. Later that morning he heard rumors that there had been fighting at Lexington and Concord. But, when General Percy marched through the town with an additional 1,400 soldiers, Sam's military experience told him there was serious trouble - - 'why else would the British be sending reinforcements?' , he probably asked himself.
Word had come to Menotomy that the combined, heavily engaged, columns of Smith and Percy were retreating toward the town, and were burning homes along the way, so the aged warrior decided to take action in spite of his being eighty years old! He strapped on his captured french sword, stuck his brace of dueling pistols in his belt, put on his powder horn and shot bag, took his musket from its place on his fireplace mantle and went to war!
Sam selected a position that gave him a excellent view of the road from Lexington, and sat down to wait. His fellow minuteman from Menotomy pleaded for him to find a safer position, but he choose to ignore them.
His fellow minuteman started firing at the oncoming British Grenadiers of the 47th Regiment of Foot, falling back to reload, then firing again. Sam waited. Finally, when the column was directly in front of him, he stood and fired his musket. A grenadier fell dead. He drew his two pistols, firing both at almost point blank range. Another grenadier fell dead, a third fell mortally wounded. The British soldiers were on top of him, he had not the time to reload his musket or pistols, so drawing his sword, he . started flailing away at the bayonet wielding soldiers. A soldier leveled his Brown Bess musket, at point blank range and fired. The .69 calibre ball struck Sam in the cheek, tearing away part of his face and throwing him to the ground. Sam valiantly tried to rise, fending off bayonet thrusts with his sword, but he was overpowered. Struck in the head with a musket butt, he went down again, then was bayoneted thirteen times and left for dead.
The British continued their fight through the streets of Menotomy, which turned out to be the costliest action of the day. They left forty of their soldiers dead in the town and another eighty wounded, half the casualties of the day.
After the British column had fought its way clear, the town's people and minuteman started to search for their wounded compatriots. Several had seen Sam Whittemore's "last stand" and approached to remove his body. To everyone's astonishment Sam was not only still alive, but conscious and still full of fight. Laying there, he was trying to load his musket!
Using a door as a makeshift stretcher, Sam was carried to Cooper Tavern, which was being used as a emergency hospital. Doctor Nathaniel Tufts of Medford attended to Sam. He cut off his bloody clothes, and exposed the gaping bayonet wounds. Sam's face was horribly injured. Doctor Tufts knew the injuries were fatal, stating it wouldn't do any good to even dress the wounds. Sam's family and friends insisted and Dr. Tufts did the best he could. He tried to make the old man as comfortable as possible. After his wounds were attended to Sam was carried to his home, to die surrounded by his family. To everyone's utter amazement Captain Sam Whittemore lived! He recovered and remained active for the next eighteen years. He was terribly scarred, but always was proud of what he had done for his adopted country. He is quoted as having stated that he would take the same chances again.
You can question the old soldier's tactical judgment, making the stand in the manner he did, but you can never question his bravery. He also proved you are never too old! Sam died on February 3rd, 1793, age 98 and is buried in the town's cemetery.
General Hugh Percy shared the opinion that the colonists would never fight, or if they did, they would be ineffective. After his fighting retreat, he wrote to General Harvey, in England: "... during the whole affair the Rebels attacked is in a very scattered, irregular manner, but with perseverance and resolution, nor did they ever dare to form into any regular body. Indeed, they knew too well what was proper, to do so.
Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob, will find himself much mistaken. They have men amongst them who know very well what they are about, having been employed as Rangers against the Indians and Canadians and this country being much covered with wood, and hilly, is very advantageous for their method of fighting. . . . ".
NOTES AND COMMENTS:
1. Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, (1719?-1787) Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in North America. He was relieved of his command by General William Howe October 10th, 1775.
2. Colonel Francis Smith (1723-1791), commanding officer of the 10th Regiment of Foot. In 1787 he was promoted to Lieutenant General and Aide-de-Camp to King George III.
3. In the 18th Century a British Regiment was comprised of ten Companies, each between 35 and 50 men. One Company was light Infantry and one Company were Grenadiers (wearing the famed tall bearskin cap) and eight companies of the line. When the Regiment was formed up, the Light Infantry and Grenadiers were at either end of the formation, hence the term "flank companies".
4. Major John Pitcairn (1722-1775) of the Royal Marines He led the final charge at Bunker's Hill, with the cry "Now, for the glory of the Marines" and was struck by what was probably the last volley from the American redoubt. He died in his son's arms (a Marine Lieutenant). He was survived by his eleven children.
5. Captain John Parker (1729-1775) commanding the Lexington Minutemen had served in the French and Indian Wars and was probably one of Roger's Rangers. He died of Tuberculosis on September 17th, 1775.
6. General Hugh Percy (1742-1817) was known as Earl Percy. In 1793 he was promoted to full General, but achieved no further distinctions, other than his successful retreat from Lexington.
7. Sam's position was at present day Mystic Street near the corner Chestnut Street and his marked by a plaque that reads: "Near this spot Samuel Whittemore, then 80 years old, killed three British Soldiers April 19, 1775. He was shot, bayoneted, beaten and left for dead, but recovered and lived to be 98 years of age. "
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