"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
Disclaimer: The following is a piece of regrettably too clever satire, written for the amusement of my reenacting friends, that I can ruefully confirm is a tongue-in-cheek fabrication. There are a number of references in the body of the message and in the so-called Journal of Constant Belcher, starting with his name, that we hoped would be tip offs. We had no intention of creating a hoax and apologise to those who care deeply, as do we both, about this period and its scholarly research. We all dream about finding the real thing. This is not it, but if you will forgive us our tresspasses, Constant Belcher may yet return, ala his fictional inspirations Harry Flashman and Blackadder's Baldrick.
My friend and reenacting comrade in arms Larry Schmidt and I were deep in our research into the original color of the field of our regimental flag – he favors a minty green (which he claims is "refreshing"), while I am holding out for Jersey drab – when we made an extraordinary discovery. We recently visited the Spanktown Society of Friends in Carteret, New Jersey. We were ushered into a disused storeroom at the back of the building, the oldest part of this structure that Larry is convinced is all that remains of the historic Blazing Star Tavern from which you may recall Col. Ogden launched his raid against the loyalists on Staten Island in 1777.
We had come to view what we were told was an 18th century American haversack of soiled onsaberg linen on which someone had painted the shield of the 1st NJ in an early American primitive style. However, we could see right away that it was actually a grease stain that looked vaguely like a bearded man with undressed hair which is clearly not 18thcentury. While Larry is not unconvinced that it may in fact be a representation of Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, one of the colony's first royal governors who reputedly dressed in women's clothing to effect a likeness to his cousin, Queen Anne, I remain skeptical.
In any event, we were extremely disappointed to have followed another promising lead down a false trail, but then noticed a bundle of rags that at first we took for something even Adam Young of the 2nd NJ - the most ragged Continental of the them all - might refuse to wear, but which actually proved to be an old book wrapped in tow cloth. What we found inside literally blew our minds.
It appears to be a journal, in appallingly poor handwriting, written by an enlisted man in Colonel Ogden’s 1st New Jersey. As you all know, anything written by enlisted men is rare enough from this period. Aside from the 1776 diary of Timothy Tuttle, there is no other contemporary journal of its kind known from our regiment. While it is very difficult to decipher, appears to have been written in a variety of natural inks, and has many loose pages all out of order, Larry and I have made enough progress to be able to say with certainty that the author is one Constant Belcher of Elizabethtown and that he was for a period the waiter or batman of my own direct ancestor, Brigade Major Aaron Ogden, the brother of Colonel Matthias Ogden!
Like Ogden, Belcher is an old Elizabeth New Jersey name, and The Belcher-Ogden House in Elizabeth, also known as the Governor Jonathan Belcher Mansion, is another intriguing connection between these families. I had no idea that Maj. Ogden had a batman named Belcher, and never conceived that he might have left a journal of his experiences. Larry and I promptly made a $10 contribution to the Spanktown Yearly Meeting and they let us take the tow cloth and its contents.
We are now busily trying to decipher and transcribe the Journal of Constant Belcher and prepare it for scholarly publication. It is hard going, but each of us has taken sections and we will share the results with you as we have them. We have decided to omit the ligatures and archaic spellings of standard names and places, and to add punctuation where needed for clarity, but otherwise to leave the entries as Belcher wrote them. Because of my interest in Sullivan’s Staten Island Raid, I am delighted to be able to share with you now the relevant section from Belcher’s Journal:
“Aug 21st - We marcht to Blazing Star this day wair Colo. Ogden told us to leaf our Knapsacks - those that had them - taking only our musquets, cartouch pouches, Bayonets and market wallets to carry off lawful plunder. He must have meant us to wear our Small cloathes as well but made no Mention of them, and some in Capt. Conway’s and Capt. McMyer’s Cos. were reprimanded for appearing in ranks in naught but the clothes of Adam. Maj. Bloomfield told me to make a place for his horse in the boat for the crossing to Cuckoldstown. I gave it green pippins from his haversack so that it might ease our passage with a copious wind.
Augt. 22 – Colo. Ogden took command of our force, which was some militia and our Regiment and the 3rd regiment, as Col. Dayton thought it best not to be associated with any scheme of General Sullivan’s who is an addle pated Hector and like to get poor soldiers kilt. Thair was but 3 boats betwixt 500 men and we were near enough awash as we were a-going into Fresh Kills on the flood tide. I lost my shoes in the marsh but got another pair from the Greens after we took their camp. My share of the plunder come to 6 pair trousers, three regimentals of the 1st NJV, 8 cocked hats with white tape, a powder horn scrimshandered with some English Doxie in a shift with a helmet with a pair of lions, three Silver Pocket watches, some ladies stays in a Most pleasing Scarlet colour, some first quality sausages, and a Pickering’s Musquet tool. Colo. Ogden said we must take one of the Schooners that fell into our Hands and return to Elizabethtown with our prisoners and Plunder and I went aboard since it was Clear as day that we had not enuf boats for our own return if we had to be Hasty about it. Heard them firing up Island and was snugg back in Elizabethtown when Genl. Sullivan brought back his division except his rear Guard whot got left behind as I knew they would. Found my powder horn was filled with spirits and got drunk as a wheel barrow.”
I am so excited by this discovery. Larry and I feel it will absolutely change our understanding of the Revolution from the common man's perspective, and is sure to get a few noses out of joint on RevList. For one thing, we won't have to throw out our Pickering's Tools anymore as inauthentic!
Two explanatory hypotheses have come down through the years concerning the cause of death of General Enoch Poor. The standard narrative is that he took sick toward the end of August, 1780, and succumbed to his illness early in the second week of September. The other theory alleges that he was mortally injured in an illegal duel with a subordinate officer that was in turn the subject of a massive (and effective) cover up.
Each theory has its proponents, but a good researcher tests assumptions and weighs evidence before accepting one version or the other as the more likely, and that is the task I have set for myself in this series. This post deals with the conventional story of the death of General Poor, and the following will consider the alternate hypothesis.
A number of primary sources, including contemporary letters and journals, reference the death and funeral of General Poor and make mention of the cause of death. Among these are the following:
The diary of Col Israel Angell (2nd RI Regt.) - "September 9th , 1780. Clear and Very Cool. Recd News this Morning of the Death of the Honourable Brigadier General Poor, who departed this Life after a Short Illness of the putrid feavor."
The Diary of Lt. William S. Pennington of New Jersey, (2nd Artillery Regt. Continental Army) - "Saturday, 9th. Last night died Brigadier-General Poor, of a short illness. He is much regretted by all ranks of the Army, as he was a brave officer and a worthy member of society."
Military Journal of the Revolution by James Thatcher, M.D. (Jackson's Additional Continental Regiment), - "[September] 10th. We are now lamenting the loss of Brigadier-General Poor, who died last night of putrid fever."
Journal of Maj. Jeremiah Fogg, A.D.C. to General Poor (2nd NH Regt.)- "My general is gone. A cruel stubborn billious fever has deprived us of the second man in the world…"
Lt. Col. Henry Dearborn's Journal [September 8] “this evining ye Honbe. Brigadeer Genl. Poor departed this life after labouring under a severe bilious fever 13 days, very universally lamented by the Genls. & other officers of the army."
Maj. David Humphreys (A.D.C. to George Washington) to Jeremiah Wadsworth, "10 September 1780,Genl Poor who Died of a fever is to be buried this day”
Maj. Joseph Bass to Col. Joshua. Wentworth. "On the 8th inst. at night, died the worthy Gen. Poor,of a putrid nervous fever: very much lamented by all ranks in the army ; and on the 10th he was buried at Hachinsach with all the honors of war...The army has lost a good officer : our Brigade in particular will feel the loss of him ; for he was like a father,both to officers and men. He did honor to the State he came from. His funeral was the grandest I ever saw in this way. I pity his poor wife and family."
Some of these writers were very close to General Poor - Dearborn and Bass served in the New Hampshire line in his old brigade, and Fogg was still on his staff at the time of his death. The Angell and Pennington Journals suggest that the cause of his death was widely known in Washington's main army very soon after his passing.
While Washington's orders in the days that followed dealt with the funeral and the auction of General Poor's effects, they do not mention the cause of his death at all.
September 9th- "After Orders - Brigadier General Poor will be interred tomorrow afternoon at Hackensack Church; the funeral procession will commence at four o'clock from Brewer's house in front of the Infantry."
September 12th - "Part of the Effects of the late Brigadier General Poor among which are several suits of Cloaths, a genteel small sword, sash, Epauletts, and many other articles will be vendued at Lieutenant Colonel Dearborn's Marquee in the New Hampshire brigade tomorrow morning ten o'clock."
"It is with extreme regret, I announce the death of Brigadier General Poor the 9th instant, an officer of distinguished merit, who as a citizen and a Soldier had every claim to the esteem of his Country."
Aside from these communications, Washington's Papers are silent on General Poor himself, even as officer of the Day, from the time he was ordered to join his new command in early August until his funeral was announced on September 9th. Nor was he not at the Council of War convened by Washington on September 6th.
The loss of General Poor was overshadowed by the unwelcome news that Washington received from the south at this time that General Gate's army had been badly beaten at Camden, South Carolina, and would soon be overtaken by Benedict Arnold's defection. Still, there were rumors that General Poor had not died of disease but in a duel, the echos of which have rippled down through the years to the present day. We will examine the evidence for this claim in the next post in this series.