During the Civil War, a Connecticut minister named E. B. Hillard went on a quest to collect the reminiscences of the Revolutionary War veterans still alive. They had fought as teenagers and lived a century or more, into the age of photography.
So Hillard traveled to their homes, nearly all west of their birthplaces, interviewed them and took pictures of them and their houses. He compiled them into a book called The Last Men of the Revolution, published in Hartford in 1864.
Few photos of Revolutionary war veterans ever existed, and few survived. Edward Everett, the Massachusetts statesman, so prized Hillard’s work that he wrote a letter to thank the publisher on the day he died. The book, he wrote, “was all that can be expected.”
The Revolutionary War Veterans
Lemuel Cook was born in Plymouth, Conn., on Sept. 10, 1759. He signed up at 16 and served in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, which patrolled Southern Connecticut and New York. They fought Loyalist cowboys, marauders who stole cattle and sold it to the British.
He first smelled gunpowder during a retreat in West Chester, N.Y. “Lem, what do you think of gunpowder?” said another soldier. “Smell good to you?”
Cook almost lost his life during his first sentry duty at Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. While standing guard, a cowboy came out of a barn and fired at him, so he moved away. Then another man came out and fired, missing him. A third, however, emerged from the barn and sent a ball into his hat.
The noise aroused the camp, and the Americans, aided by the French, captured the enemy in the barn. One had the cheek to say that three of them each bet a crown they could kill Lemuel Cook.
Cook pulled his pistol and said, “”If I’ve been a mark to you for money, I’ll take my turn now. So, deliver your money or your life!”
The cowboy handed over four crowns, and the other two gave him three more.
Baron von Steuben personally selected Cook for the march to Yorktown because of his good-looking horse. Cook remembered little fighting at Yorktown, and that Washington told them not to laugh at the British.
When Lemuel Cook died on May 20, 1866 at the age of 106, he was the last of the Revolutionary War veterans to receive a pension. He had lived long enough to marry, father 10 children and see the end of the Civil War.
Samuel Downing joined the war effort for his own freedom.
He was born in Newburyport, Mass., on Nov. 31, 1761. As a small boy his parents left him alone at home, and a man from Antrim, N.H., came along and told him he’d teach him to make spinning wheels. He also promised to educate the boy and give him a suit of clothes. Downing went along with him and quickly regretted his choice. All he did was split spokes and make wheels.
He escaped by enlisting in the New Hampshire Line, a Continental Army infantry regiment. The line was stationed in the Mohawk Valley under Benedict Arnold.
“A bloody fellow he was,” said Downing. “He didn’t care for nothing; he’d ride right in. It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ’twasn’t ‘Go, boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived.”
Downing fought in the Battle of Saratoga, and thought Arnold should have received Gen. Burgoyne’s sword of surrender. Instead, Gen. Horatio Gates got it.
“Gates was an ‘old granny’ looking fellow,” Downing said. “When Burgoyne came up to surrender his sword, he said to Gates, ‘Are you a general? You look more like a granny than you do like a ‘general.’ ‘I be a granny,’ said Gates, ‘and I’ve delivered you of ten thousand men to-day’.”
Downing marched to Yorktown, where he saw Washington every day in Virginia. “We loved him,” he said, describing him as a nice man who never smiled.
After the war, Samuel Downing married, had 13 children and built his own house in Edinburgh, N.Y. On his hundredth birthday he chopped down a hemlock tree five feet in circumference. The town held a celebration to honor one of the last living Revolutionary War veterans, and the tree was made into canes and other wooden mementoes for sale.
The Rev. E.B. Hillard found Daniel Waldo in Saratoga, N.Y., near death and unable to speak after he’d fallen down a flight of stairs.
So Hillard told Waldo’s story himself. He was born Sept. 10, 1762, in Windham, Conn. At 16 he was drafted as a soldier for a month in New London. Then he enlisted for another eight months. While stationed in Greenwich, Conn., the British took him prisoner in March 1779.They took him to New York City and confined him for two months in a Sugar House used as a prison.
The British prisons were abysmal, dirty and disease-ridden. More Americans died in British prisons than in battle. But Waldo survived, winning his release after two months.
After he returned home he decided to study for the ministry and entered Yale. At the age of 96, the U.S. House of Representatives voted him as their chaplain. He died July 30, 1864.
Another of the Revolutionary War veterans who served only a short time was William Hutchings. Born in 1764 in York, Maine (then Massachusetts), his family moved to land near Castine, Maine, where his father built a log cabin.
The British were building a fort in Castine, and young William helped them carry logs. He also carried back information to the patriots. The British soldiers called him a ‘damned little rebel,’ though they allowed him access to the fort.
His father, Charles, had to flee after shooting a British soldier. He took his family to Newcastle for the rest of the war.
William enlisted in the Massachusetts militia at 15. He only saw fighting at the siege of Castine during the disastrous Penobscot Expedition. The British took him prisoner, but let him go because of his youth.
He built a house in Penobscot, Maine, married, had 16 children and died on May 2, 1866, 18 days before Lemuel Cook. He is buried in Penobscot, Maine.
To read the Rev. Hillard’s complete book about the Revolutionary War veterans, click here. This story was updated in 2022.