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."
Washington buried the lead when he wrote these brief lines in a much longer letter to Congress on September 15th, 1780:
"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.