On July 7, 1780, a despairing Lt. Col. Ebenezer Huntington of Norwich, Conn., had no way of knowing the United States would defeat Britain at Yorktown in a little over a year.
He was awaiting provisions near New York with Gen. George Washington’s army of 6,650 poorly fed, badly clothed and unpaid men. That the army existed at all was a credit to Washington’s leadership. The war, at that point, was one of attrition for the colonists. All they could hope for was to keep the British bottled up in New York City and avoid annihilation.
Ebenezer Huntington was 25 years old, an ardent patriot who had left Yale College without permission on April 21, 1775, to enlist in the 2nd Connecticut Regiment . He participated in the Siege of Boston, marched with Washington to New York, and fought in the battles of Long Island, Rhode Island and Springfield.
He wrote a letter to his brother Andrew Huntington from Passaic Falls, N.J., on July 7, 1780. In it, he described the Battle of Springfield and complained about the ‘rascally stupidity’ that prevailed in the country. Clearly, Ebenezer Huntington wrote his letter in a passion.
Ebenezer Huntington Writes
He first apologized to his brother for not writing, but “our very rambly Situation will not admit of any Conveniency for writing, this I write on my knee ”
Huntington then described how the regiment took the field on March 7, 1780, “not from inclination but from necessity.” The enemy had moved so near their huts that they had to send their baggage to the rear. “We have lain in the Woods without any Covering but what the Almighty gives the Brute Creation to which State we verge fast.”
The whole army, he wrote, amounted to two-thirds of the enemy’s force. He then described how the enemy landed in New Jersey the militia harassed them. That, “for some reason induc’d the Enemy to burn wherever they went.”
Battle of Springfield
The British then maneuvered as if they intended to move up the North River. In response, Washington marched five brigades toward West Point. He left behind Gen. Nathanael Greene and 1,500 men, including John Stark’s brigade, to which Huntington’s regiment belonged.
On June 23, “the Enemy moved from Elizabeth town (to which Place they had Previously retir’d) toward Springfield where our troops lay except Parties advanced,” wrote Huntington.
“Our People fought them as they advanc’d but when they had got to Springfield they endeavor’d to turn our left flank at the same time pushing a heavy column toward our Centre,” he wrote. The Continentals repulsed them on the left, though the British overwhelmed the center after 40 minutes of very heavy firing.
Then Huntington described how Col. Israel Angell’s regiment with some small detachments fought the enemy’s main force during that 40 minutes. Forty-one men were killed and wounded. “The Enemy suffered much by their own accounts, he wrote. “Our troops behav’d well.” Greene thanked the troops.
At about 3 PM, wrote Huntington, the British retired, harassed in the rear by the Continentals. The next night they retreated to Staten Island.
What Huntington could not have known when he wrote his letter was that the Battle of Springfield effectively ended the war in New Jersey.
He left something else out of the letter, probably something he didn’t know–but which went down in history as a key moment in the battle. When Angell’s artillerymen ran low on wadding, James Caldwell, the Continental Army chaplain, brought up a load of hymn books published by Isaac Watts to use instead. “Give ’em Watts, boys,” he said.
His regiment began to march to join the main army on June 25, he wrote. “We lie in the Woods as stated in the beginning of this letter, hoping to be able to have tents in a few days.”
And then he let loose. “The Rascally Stupidity which now prevails in the Country at large, is beyond all descriptions,” he wrote. He complained that people saw their illustrious commander at the head of 2,500 or 3,000 “ragged tho’ virtuous good men,” obliged to put up with what no troops ever did before.
“Why dont you Reinforce your Army, feed them Clothe and pay them, why do you Suffer the Enemy to have a foot hold on the Continent?,” he wrote. “You Can prevent it, send your Men to the field, believe you are Americans Not suffer yourselves to be dup’d into the thought that the french will relieve you.”
“Fight your battles,” he implored. He then complained about Congress asking for foreign aid. “It is a Reflection too much for a Soldier, You dont deserve to be freemen unlefs you can believe it yourselves, when they arrive they will not put up with such treatment as your Army have done they will not serve Week after Week without Meat without Cloathing, paid in filthy Rags.”
‘All this for my cowardly countrymen’
Ebenezer Huntington continued in his letter to work himself into a froth.
“I despise My Countrymen. I wish I could say I was not born in America, I once gloried in it but am now ashamed of it,” he wrote.
“The Insults ” Neglects which the Army have met with from the Country, Beggers all description, it must Go no farther they can endure it no longer.”
He admitted he wrote in a passion. “Indeed I am scarce ever free from it. Clothed in rags, he had lain in the rain on the ground for the past 40 hours. To eat, he had only had a “junk of fresh beef without salt to dine on this day.” He hadn’t been paid since December.
“All this for my Cowardly Countrymen who flinch at the very time when their Exertions are wanted, he wrote.[They] “hold their Purse Strings as tho they would Damn the World, rather than part with a Dollar to their Army.”
Life improved for Ebenezer Huntington. The Americans won, of course, and he ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. He married twice, had 10 children and served as adjutant general of the Connecticut militia for 30 years. He won a promotion to brigadier general during the Quasi-War with France in 1798. He also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This story was updated in 2021.
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