Aaron Ogden wrote an autobiography late in life with highlights of his Revolutionary service. So did Joseph Plumb Martin, whose memoir is the most widely cited record left by a private solider in Washington's army. So did John P. Becker, who was a 12-year-old teamster with Henry Knox and whose Sexagenary was likewise written as an old man. And so did Major John Polhemus, one of the men named to give evidence in 1779 at the court martial of Col. Matthias Ogden.
Aside from allowing old men of that other "Greatest Generation" to reflect on their youth and share their stories for posterity (as living memories faded and their numbers rapidly dwindled), there was also a practical consideration served by these memoirs In 1818, Congress enacted the first pension act for Revolutionary War veterans that provided benefits for those who had not been disabled by their service. Further legislation required that applicants demonstrate that their financial circumstances required relief, and in 1828 another service pension act granted full pay for life to those officers and men who had served to the end of the war. Applicants were required to provide a narrative of their service and any further evidence they could provide in support of these claims. Memoirs like those of Ogden, Martin, Becker and Polhemus arose contemporaneously with this legislation.
Historians and genealogists alike find these Revolutionary reminiscences a trove of detailed anecdotes. Martin in particular has become the Patriot "everyman", with a wry and engaging style rich in description and ideally suited for "color commentary." There are far fewer accounts written by common soldiers from the Revolution - be they Loyalist, Patriot, Hessian or Briton - and even those written by officers like Ogden and Polhemus are often the only eyewitness accounts available for certain events and subject matter. They should be approached with caution, however, and not treated as authoritative without question.
A veteran writing more than half a century after Revolution had the opportunity to forget and reinterpret events both intentionally and subconsciously. He may have read other accounts and later histories and highlighted his experiences within that narrative. Thus Aaron Ogden claimed that he was dispatched by Washington under flag of truce to see whether Sir Henry Clinton would exchange the traitor Arnold for the captive Andre, and John Polhemus placed himself close enough to Lafayette at Brandywine when the young Marquis was wounded to joke with him about it being "bon for American liberty." These may, in fact, be strictly factual recollections, but they also served to burnish the reputations of the tellers in close association with notable figures in the Independence struggle. If a pension were on the line, such claims were also golden opportunities, and by the time they were written many other potential eye-witnesses were no longer alive.
John Polhemus made a number of claims in his memoir, written in the mid 1820s in his 87th year, that are difficult to substantiate. He lived just a few short miles from Princeton, so it is conceivable that he could have accompanied the militia to Newtown, PA prior to the attack on Trenton, or been left behind at Princeton to bury the dead. It is harder to credit how he could have been "with General Wayne's expedition and unfortunate surprise by the enemy at Paoli."
The New Jersey Brigade was not posted with Wayne, nor yet within a reasonable distance of his encampment to have been engaged even in part when Wayne was assaulted in a night bayonet attack on September 20, 1777. Instead it was on the other side of the Schuylkill River with Washington's main force and marching further away from Wayne's position. According to Thomas J McGuire, author of the only book length study of this engagement, Wayne's force included the two Pennsylvania brigades of his division; three troops of light dragoons from Virginia and Connecticut regiments; Captain Thomas Randall's Independent Company of Artillery (with men who may have been either from Massachusetts of New Jersey); and civilian teamsters with a number of commissary and quartermaster's department wagons. Unless he was acting as a courier (and as Captain of the 4th company of the 1st New Jersey this is unlikely), it is unclear how he would have been present with Wayne for this celebrated massacre.
The most perplexing part of the Polhemus story, however, has a direct impact of the court martial proceedings of Col. Matthias Ogden in 1779. Washington's instructions on February 24, 1779 to Brigadier General Maxwell of the New Jersey Brigade regarding witnesses named to give evidence included a summons for Captain Polhemus. This presents a problem, because according to his own testimony late in life - both in his memoir and in his Revolutionary war claims before Congress - Polhemus would not have been available to appear at Ogden's trial. He was a prisoner of war.
According to an extensive excerpt from his memoir, while engaged in service near Amboy;
"I was taken prisoner by a large party of Tories...I was sent to the New York gaol, there suffering terribly from want of food and clothing, and obliged to lie on the cold floor, almost perishing, without any hope of relief...It was indeed a most dismal and severe winter. The bay and East and North rivers were frozen over and formed solid bridges of ice, great numbers constantly crossing from New York to Staten Island and Paulus Hook...During this severe and cold weather I was removed to the Sugar House...It was out of the frying pan, into the fire - no fire, not even a blanket to keep me warm...In the Spring of 1780 I was let out on parole, by the intercession of Dr. Bainbridge, father of the future commodore, United States Navy...I went immediately to my regiment, crippled and twisted with rheumatism and in bad health, then to my home where I remained, never receiving notice of my exchange until peace was declared."
From his description of a single, extremely cold winter spent first in the Provost Jail and then the equally notorious Sugar House, and his release in the Spring of 1780, it would seem that Captain Polhemus might have been captured sometime in 1779. Yet in his Revolutionary War claim to Congress in 1832 under the service pension act of 1828, he made the following account of his service that conflicts with his memoirs in key respects;
"...he was in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth; that he was afterwards captured by the British and conveyed to New York, where he was detained a prisoner for seventeen months, enduring privations scarcely to be imagined; that in the Spring of the year 1780, he was released upon parole, and continued in the service to the close of the war."
For John Polhemus to have been a prisoner for seventeen months and be released in the Spring of 1780, the latest he could have been captured was January, 1779: more than a month before he was summoned to appear at Ogden's court martial. The only record I have found of a John Polhemus captured in New Jersey between the Battle of Monmouth and January 1779 comes from a Loyalist raid in which Captain Voorhees of the 1st New Jersey was killed by Lt. Col. Simcoe's Queens Rangers and "Dr. Ryker and Mr. John Polhemus were taken prisoners by Major Armstrong's covering party." This raid did indeed occur in the vicinity of Amboy, but took place in October, 1779.
If "Mr. John Polhemus" captured at this time refers to John Polhemus of the 1st New Jersey, then he would have been available for Ogden's trial the previous March, but could not have served more than 9 months in prison - not seventeen - and still be released "in the Spring of 1780 as he claimed.
Furthermore, if he were a serving officer at the time of Simcoe's raid, why is the captured John Polhemus referred to only by his civilian title? Why was he imprisoned in the Provost Jail and the Sugar House, instead of given the opportunity to secure private lodgings on Long Island or elsewhere in the city as was common with other captured officers (as indeed was the case when Matthias Ogden himself was captured in November of 1780)? Why is there no mention in his accounts or any other record of his participation with the New Jersey Brigade in Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois during the summer and fall of 1779?
When John Polhemus made his case to Congress for full pay for life based on service to the end of the war he also tried to get reimbursed for personal outlays made in the 1st and 2nd establishments of the 1st New Jersey to outfit his company, and for his back pay while a prisoner. In neither of these latter claims was he successful. He asserted that he had once possessed a certificate prepared in 1786 by his old commander Colonel Ogden and by Henry Knox - commander in chief of the all but disbanded United States Army - that stated he was owed $1,500 dollars, but that it had regretably been lost.
Congress found that he had been making claims to the New Jersey legislature based on this amount since 1792, but that the only time it had acted on his request was to deny it. Nor did the committee find he was entitled to any arrears in pay, much as it commended him as without a doubt a "highly meritorious officer." It did confirm that as one who served to the end of the war, he was entitled to his pension. But two years later, it had reason to question even that.
In 1834, the United States Senate took up "An Act for the Relief of John Polhemus" that had been referred from the House of Representatives. There was considerable question as to whether Polhemus had, in fact, served to the end of the war and was entitled to the pension he had secured under the act of 1828. Included with the Senate proceedings were 2 letters which must have been devastating for hopes of keeping the pension, for they seem fairly conclusively to state that he was a declared supernumerary officer under the resolves of 1778, and listed as such on November 1st 1779.
This would explain why John Polhemus might have been considered a civilian when captured at Rahway and had to endure many months in the more notorious prisons in New York before his parole (but not exchange). It would explain why he was not in command of a company during Sullivan's Expedition later in 1779. It strongly suggests that he was taken during Simcoe's raid, and so he would have been able to testify as a supernumerary officer (though apparently not on active service) at Ogden's trial. His claim of 17 months imprisonment is very specific but was only made in his pension claim, and would have covered the gap in his resume - his year as a supernumerary off active service - as well as 5 or so months in prison.
He is recorded by both Heitman and Stryker as having resigned by January 1, 1781, and not as serving to the end of the war. We can forgive an old soldier for trying to put his excellent service record through Monmouth in the best light to conform to the requirements of government bureaucracy. Officialdom has routinely treated servicemen (and women) scandalously throughout America's wars regarding veterans benefits. He outlived nearly all of his contemporaries, but even his faded tombstone does not fit comfortably with the historic record. He died on May 25, 1833 in his ninety-sixth year, while it took the Senate until the following year to consider and then find evidence against a bill for his relief.