Read the Revolution

curated collection of excerpts from exciting, thought-provoking books about the American Revolution

Biography

April 21, 2015

The Revolution's Last Men

In 1864, the Reverend E.B. Hillard published photographs and interviews of six of the last living American Revolution veterans. But with an emphasis more on commemoration than scholarship, the veracity of some of their stories later came under doubt. In The Revolution's Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs, Don N. Hagist updates Reverend Hillard's biographies with comprehensive, primary-source research to provide a richer, more accurate look at these remarkable men's lives. In this excerpt, he focuses on a young, Connecticut-based solider named Daniel Waldo.

"Waldo turned 16 in September 1778, and was drafted into the military the following April. He served for one month in a company commanded by Capt. William Howard, and his activity was more that of the laborer than the soldier...

"Released from his one-month obligation, his activities go unrecorded until he joined the militia once again in April 1780. Connecticut's militia was well organized, formed into regiments from various regions of the colony. These regiments were raised and disbanded annually and spent much of the war along the coast keeping a watchful eye on enemy movements in Long Island Sound, ever vigilant for incursions of any sort...

"In Horse Neck they joined with other militia companies and formed a regiment commanded by Lt. Col. Levi Wells. It was hardly a cohesive fighting force. Many of the new enlistees had seen several years of service in the war, some fighting in important campaigns and seeing famous battles like the defeat of General Burgoyne's army in 1777 and the struggle at Monmouth, New Jersey, in 1778.  But many others were men like Daniel Waldo with little experience or none at all, unaccustomed not only to battle but to the military routine of hygiene, discipline, vigilance, and long marches. Each man probably had a measure of skill in handling a firearm, but not in the coordinated, mutually supporting activities that are essential to successful military operations. And within two weeks of their initial formation, the regiment was stationed at an active, dangerous frontline post on the Connecticut shoreline. The 46-year-old Lt. Col. Wells was a seasoned officer, having served in the French and Indian War and in the current war since 1775 (including several months as a prisoner of war after the Battle of Long Island in 1776), but his task of maintaining a capable regiment in a dangerous location was daunting...

"For their first several weeks in Horse Neck the militiamen changed quarters frequently, sometimes sheltering in houses and sometimes camping at different locations in the woods. This irregular lodging was a defensive measure to prevent any patterns of behavior that could lead to a nighttime attack by the enemy. By the middle of summer, however, another regiment arrived and the whole force, now numbering some 600 men, established a regular encampment...

"In late July British regiments began moving and fears rose that some sort of attack was imminent. On August 1 the regiments at Horse Neck were ordered to join a larger force in the vicinity of White Plains and they promptly were on the move; the next day they received orders to divest themselves of all heavy baggage so that they could move as rapidly as possible, but to remain where they were and await further instructions. They encamped about five mules north of their previous post and remained for a week or two before returning to Horse Neck. At the beginning of September they marched out again, this time to North Castle, northeast of White Plains, again in coordination with other parts of the army; once again they soon returned to their encampment near Greenwich...

"By December, the soldiers in Lt. Col. Wells's regiment were breathing easier. They'd made it through the campaign season with much tension but few actual brushes with the enemy. The imminent threats had passed. Armies on both sides prepared for winter. The weather turned sharply colder and the end of the Connecticut soldiers' enlistments drew near. Daniel Waldo and his comrades moved from tents into quarters, lodging in neighborhood houses and inns. They no doubt looked forward to being discharged at the end of the month, their eight-month obligations over, the Connecticut shoreline secure until the next campaign season; they could relax for a few weeks and go home at the end of the year.

"That's when the attack came.

"On the night of December 9-10 a corps of loyalist cavalrymen known as the Westchester Refugees under the command of Colonel James DeLancey took the billeted soldiers completely by surprise. They had advanced rapidly from British lines, twenty-five horses each carrying one dragoon and one infantryman. Well informed of the American positions, they divided into groups and assaulted each of three buildings housing Wells's men at about 3 a.m. It all happened quickly. Men who resisted were cut down, not by gunfire but by sabers, felled by multiple cuts on the head, arms, and upper body and then trampled by horses. Sentries had no chance to sound an alarm. Soldiers who turned out of a barn where they'd been asleep were immediately surrounded by horsemen. Daniel Waldo stood sentry at the door of the house where Lt. Col. Wells and several other officers were quartered; he heard no warnings from out-sentries and was surprised by an enemy soldier who attempted to shoot him, only to have the musket misfire. Waldo laid down his weapon but still his assailant thrust at him with a bayonet. Waldo then laid down himself, and the loyalists stormed the house. Waldo, along with everyone inside, was taken prisoner...

"A mere twenty-one days before the end of his eight-month enlistment, Daniel Waldo was taken to New York and incarcerated in the infamous Sugar House prison... If Waldo was unlucky to have been captured so close to the end of his enlistment, he was lucky to have been made a prisoner at that time of the war. After only two months, an exchange was agreed upon; the British released a number of prisoners for a like number released by their adversaries." 

Don N. Hagist. The Revolution's Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Yardley: Westholme Publishing, 2015), 34-41.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.