In 1781 Thomas Johnson put himself squarely between both sides fighting the American Revolution. Johnson served as a colonel in the colonial militia. He oversaw British prisoners who surrendered at Fort Ticonderoga, but people questioned his loyalties.
Much of Vermont refused to take a side in the Revolution, making it a haven for loyalists and dangerous for patriots.
Men from Newbury, Vt., loyal to the patriot cause moved across the river to Haverhill, N.H., because the northern portion of the Connecticut River became a de facto boundary. British scouts routinely traveled through Vermont, picking up intelligence and capturing Americans. But they rarely crossed the Connecticut for fear of being captured themselves before they could retreat across the river.
Johnson and American general Jacob Bayley stayed in Newbury, however, dodging the British scouts when they passed through in 1778, 1779 and 1780. But Johnson’s luck was about to run out.
Johnson got a job building a grist mill in nearby Peacham in 1781. He had the rocks for the foundation collected and brought to Peacham and traveled there himself in March to begin the work. British scouts in the area heard their old enemy had strayed from the safety of the Connecticut River. Johnson’s diary entry for March 8, 1781 tells what happened next.
“This morning about 12 or 1 o’clock, I awaked out of my sleep, and found the house beset with enemies. Thought I would slip on my stockings, jump out of the window, and run. But before that, came in two men with their guns pointed at me, and challenged me for their prisoner.”
They marched him through the woods. First they stopped at St. John’s, then Montreal, then Chambly and then Three Rivers. For eight months, Johnson’s British captors questioned him. He equivocated, feigning little interest in the American cause.
Finally, he was freed and allowed to return home to Newbury on parole. The conditions were simple:
- He would return to Canada if the British requested it;
- He would do nothing to oppose British interests;
- And he would assist British scouts if called upon.
Under the suspicious eye of his neighbors, who questioned his true allegiance, Johnson wrote to George Washington. With the British, he explained, he had learned something of their plans. The British had failed to attack from the North in 1781 because they lacked provisions. But, he cautioned, they planned another attack.
Johnson further warned that the hills of Vermont were rife with loyalists who would support the British endeavors. By aiding Washington, Johnson violated the terms of his parole. So he pleaded in a series of letters for a formal exchange of prisoners, which would release him from his obligations to the British.
“My position grows more distressing,” he wrote, “I have been exposed by the infirmity or imprudence of a gentleman, one that we could not have expected it from.”
Washington regretfully declined, though he did meet with Johnson to hear the particulars of what he had learned while in British captivity.
Back in Newbury, Johnson was wary of his position, and rightfully so. In June of 1782, Johnson was summoned to meet a party of British scouts. They had positioned themselves on a ridge above the “Great Oxbow,” a bend in the Connecticut River. They wanted Johnson’s help in planning an assault, during which they planned to capture Johnson’s neighbor and fellow officer, Jacob Bayley.
Bayley was plowing in the field by the Oxbow with his sons. Having learned the precise location of his house, the British planned an attack that night. Returning home, Johnson decided he must act. On a slip of paper he wrote the phrase: “The Philistines are upon thee, Sampson.”
Because the British watched Bayley in the field, he could not deliver the message directly. Dudley Carleton, Bayley’s brother-in-law, carried the message to the field. As he passed by, he dropped the note for his brother-in-law to see.
Bayley understood the warning and, leaving his sons plowing, he surreptitiously made his way home, and from there across the Connecticut. When the British raided Bayley’s house, they found little of value. But they were quite sure they knew who had told Bayley they were coming.
In their next visit to the area, they would have received approval to burn Johnson’s property and take him prisoner again. There wasn’t a happier man in Vermont than Thomas Johnson when the peace treaty with Britain was signed, relieving him of any obligations to the British and saving his property.
All his life, however, Johnson was dogged by questions and rumors about his loyalty dating back to the difficult days of 1782.
Thanks to: Historical sketches of the discovery, settlement, and progress of events in the Coos country and vicinity, principally included between the years 1754 and 1785. Image: British soldiers By Tommc73 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48557811. This story last updated in 2022.