From Fifer to the Society of the Cinncinnati
Benjamin Gilbert was born in 1755 in Brookfield, Massachusetts, the son of Daniel Gilbert. Daniel Gilbert’s father, also Benjamin, came to Brookfield from Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1747; he moved possibly to find more land or to escape the “Great Awakening” religious conflicts in Ipswich. Daniel Gilbert had been a soldier during the French and Indian war and eventually became an officer. His occupation was listed simply as a farmer, but he was also a selectman for the town of Brookfield. In 1774, at age 19, Daniel’s son Benjamin joined the Brookfield company of minutemen under the command of his uncle, Joseph. Thus began his military career which lasted through the Revolutionary War and ended in 1783. He began his career as a fifer, and after several enlistments ended it as a commissioned lieutenant in the continental army and a member of the Society of Cincinnati, an organization founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence. He spent most of his career in New York and Massachusetts. His initial enlistment was with the third Massachusetts, but after his reenlistment in 1777 he was with the fifth Massachusetts until the end of the war. With the fifth he was part of an army that marched to Virginia in 1781, eventually becoming involved in the Siege of Yorktown.
The fact that he was successful and survived nine years of war is not unusual; his legacy is in the documents he left. We know many things about Benjamin Gilbert and his experiences in the revolution because both a diary and copies of his letters to various people have survived. These documents provide us with an intimate portrait of what it meant to be a soldier in the Revolutionary War. Since the diary and the letters also record his activities between his enlistments as well as a fairly long period of illness, we also get a portrait of what it was like being a private citizen in a time of war.
After Gilbert began his military career in 1775 as a fifer for three months, a subsequent enlistment continued his service until the end of 1776. Gilbert then enlisted in Colonel Rufus Putman’s Fifth Massachusetts Regiment, an enlistment which expired in 1780. He was promoted to sergeant at the beginning of this enlistment, was then later promoted to sergeant major following his actions in the Battle of Saratoga. He was subsequently also made a quartermaster sergeant. In December, 1779, he was promoted to ensign, the lowest commissioned rank in the Continental Army. In June, 1783, he was commissioned lieutenant in the Third Massachusetts Regiment.
The diary entries are terse and heavily abbreviated. They nearly always include a comment about the weather. There is very little information about actual fighting or battles, but they do frequently describe preparing to fight and moving from place to place. They contain information not usually found in descriptions of the typical activities of continental soldiers.
There are a number of entries which describe punishments for various crimes, large and small such as August 14, 1778, “Roger Alger of Capt. Shays Compy was whipt 50 lashes for stealing” and August 17, 1778, “This morning one Smith formally belonging to Colo. Greatons Regt was shot to death for desertion and inlisting several times.”
The diary also shows Gilbert’s membership in and attachment to the Freemasons. Brought with the colonists from Europe, Freemasonry can best be described as a fraternity with somewhat religious ideas centered on brotherhood and unity. The term lodge came from the taverns and alehouses where they originally met in secret in back rooms and then came to the public rooms for drink. Washington, a Freemason himself, approved of the lodges and saw them as a way to encourage morale. By the time the diary begins, Gilbert was already a Mason. There are a number of references to his attending lodge meetings in the earlier entries. The lodge would have been one place where military rank was relatively less important and men of all ranks could meet and mingle.
The diary entries describing Gilbert’s time as a soldier frequently mention drinking fairly substantial amounts of alcohol where his entries written when he was between enlistments or on leave seldom mention drinking. Grogg was primarily the drink of choice, a mixture of rum and water originally used by sailors to keep them from hoarding daily rum rations to drink in larger quantities. Two entries typical of those mentioning drinking are October 27, 1779,” Got back to camp just before sunrise and meeting again at 8 o’clock we kept it up drinking all day” and October 28, 1779 “We began drinking again this morning and held it till 11 o’ clock.”
The diary also details the winter of 1778-79 which Gilbert spent in Danbury, Connecticut, attempting to recuperate from a debilitating illness. His description of the symptoms, mouth sores, vomiting, and general weakness, suggest some form of vitamin deficiency which was not helped by his drinking. October 24, 1778, “I was very Poorly this Morning. The Cankor in my Mouth got to [be] so Great a height that I could not Rest Day or Night. My mouth, Gums, and Tongue weir all white with the cankor. At Nigt I had my bed by the Fire.” January 18, 1779, “Very Cold. I Rid Eli Horse to Town. Dr. Euestis Gave me an Order for Six Days Provision and some Physiack. I got my Provision and 1/2 lb. chocolate, 1 lb. sugar. I am Growing Worse.” January 19, 1779, “Extream Cold. I took a Portion of Physiack which worried me Very much. In the after noon it snowd. I grow Worse Very fast.” By the middle of March, 1779 the reports of illness disappear from the diary.
The diaries and letters also make clear that many Continental soldiers were sexually active. Gilbert mentions a woman, Sally Moore, whom he spent time with. There are also references to someone named Marcy. Another entry mentions that “Polly Robinson and Nel Tidrey was drummed out of the Regt.”, an obvious reference to prostitutes. In the letters written in the summer of 1781 when Gilbert’s regiment had marched south to Virginia under the Marquis de Lafayette, he wrote to a Lieutenant Park Holland that “The ladies are exceeding Amouris but not so beautiful as the northward, though there is some rare beauties amongst them. Amouris intrigues and gallantry are everywhere approved of in this state, and amongst the vulgar any man that is given to concupcience may have his fill.”
One of the interesting things about the diaries is that they record what Gilbert did during his time between enlistments and create something of a picture of civilian life. Many entries detail rounds of visits to various people; on February 3, 1780 he noted, “In the morning Docr. Bartlet and I went to Magor Harwood to Breckfirst. Walkt from their to Nathan Bartlets to diner. Then to Chasses, From Chasses Came home. In the evening we went to Peter Hills. Back by 9 oClock. The Docr Staid all night with me.” There are also entries that show he did some work around the farm. June 27, 1780, “I plowed among the Corn in the forenoon. In the after noon I rode to South parish. At night I was at Mr Hills and had a Dance.”
As the war was ending in late 1782 and early 1783, there are several mentions in the letters of Patience Converse, a woman Gilbert knew, who was pregnant and apparently named him as the father. The letters first suggest the possibility of marriage — but not until the war was over and his enlistment ended– then his denial of fatherhood, and finally a financial settlement reached with Patience’s father to end the situation.
As mentioned above, Gilbert was part of small force under the command of Lafayette which marched from New York to Virginia to resist destructive British raids into Virginia. He was in Virginia beginning in May, 1781, as part of the buildup to the Battle of Yorktown. Sadly, his last letter is September, 1781, so we have no way of knowing if he was directly involved in the battle. While there is no direct confirmation that he was involved, his 1828 obituary said that he had “commanded a platoon in the detachment led by the late Gen Hamilton at the storming of the redoubt at Yorktown.” His letters through this time period provide first, a narrative of his march from New York as part of a force moving to resist Cornwallis’ invasion of Virginia. These are not pleasant letters since they detail moving to the south and encountering heat and humidity, lacking money or clothing, and generally being exhausted from the arduous trip. What follows is a narrative of the war in Virginia and later the preparations for the Yorktown campaign. His letter to his father and stepmother dated July 18, 1781 gives a fairly detailed description of the Battle of Green Spring even though his part of was too far away to be involved in the action. The battle waged by Lafayette and Wayne was intended to defeat Cornwallis’ rear guard since it appeared the bulk of the army had crossed the James River. That proved to be wrong and instead Lafayette and Wayne found themselves fighting against most of the British forces. His first letters are depictions of English atrocities and continental failures. In two letters from May. 1781, he describes in detail watching helplessly from the banks of the James River as Generals Philips and Arnold march into Manchester and burn the town, crops and tobacco and drive off all the cattle and horses. He has a particularly low opinion of the Virginia forces, which he found to be small in number and not particularly dedicated to the cause. “The State of Virginia has not one man in the field for the War or three years and only six hundred men for 18 month, and some few Militia at this time. The Militia turns out with the greatest reluctance and cannot be prevailed upon to tarry more than one month.” The tone changes with the arrival of the ships and manpower of de Grasse. The final letter for the year ends by saying that “Nothing but the warmest expectations of capturing Cornwallis keeps my spirits high….”
Particularly in his later letters around the time he was marching to Yorktown and after, Gilbert makes several mentions of conditions for enlisted soldiers. In a letter to his father dated July 18, 1781 he says “I dread the march, our men having not more than one pair of shoes or hose to eight men, and the sands are so hot in the middle of the day that it continually raises blisters of the mens feet.” Additionally at this time most of the troops had hardly been paid for more than a year. In a letter to his father and stepmother dated April 11, 1781 he indicates “Our situation is peculiarly unhappy as the Troops that are with us have not drawn one half of their winter Cloths and received but one month pay for more than a year.” The most dramatic reference comes from an earlier letter prior to the march to Virginia. In a letter to his brother-in-law dated January 2, 1781 he complains about their situation saying “Our men are naked and not like to be Clothed. Some have Received no money since December 1779, the others not since March 1780.”
Benjamin left the army near the end of 1783. Gilbert had extended his stay in the army as long as he possibly could for three reasons. First, leaving the army would mean a return to civilian life and little prospect of the freewheeling drinking and sexual activity he enjoyed in the army. Second, returning to civilian life would also mean needing to find a way to live and make money. This was a problem for many of the soldiers at the end of the war both for lack of opportunity and lack of trust from people based on their reputations as soldiers. Third and finally, having left the army he was forced to deal with the Patience Converse affair. Upon reaching Brookfield on November 25, 1783, he was served with a warrant by the local constable and went before the magistrate and had a trial date set for December 9. On December 9 prior to the trial he negotiated a deal with Colonel Converse to settle the affair for thirty pounds. He was required to pay half, fifteen pounds, then with the remainder to be paid in the future. He finally paid it a year later than it was due.
He was initially hopeful that he would be able to obtain some Loyalist land which had been confiscated. However, the peace negotiations forbade this practice. Within six months he had purchased 219 acres in Otsego County, New York and began a life as a farmer, a teacher, surveyor, and a man active in local politics. In 1786, he married Mary Cornwall in Danbury, Connecticut. He quite likely had met her initially during the period of his convalescence in Danbury in 1778-1779. Little more is known about her than that she bore him eleven children and according to a letter to her father where he described her as having “become a hearty woman. She is able to do more business now in one week than she was in four when she left your House. Our little Dairy with the other business incident to the care of a Family employ her whole time so that She is delivered from the bane of humane happiness Iddleness. She feels herself contented and happy, with one Alloy which is the encroachment of the Wolves which are the constant disturbers of our Nights Repose.” He died on January 19, 1828 at the age of 73.
Primary Source Documents: Benjamin Gilbert
Military Life, August 25, 1778
In the morning I Sat off from the saw pitts and got lost a comeing to Camp. Got to Camp about sunrise. In the afternoon wee had order for to strike all our Tents a Load our baggage by 6 oClock the next morning.
August 26, 1778
Wee struck all our Tents and Loaded our Bagage. Swept the peraide [drill field] and then pitcht our tents again by 12 oClock. This Day Corporal Ransom & I Laid a wager Concerning Marching.
August 9, 1778
Sunday. In the fore noon it rained. In the afternoon, we had a party of Infantry Turned out of our Regt. Consisting of 1 Capt, 1 Sub, 1 Serjt, 1 Corpl, 39 Privates to be under the Comd of Colo. Morgan. At night it rained and run into our tent 5 inches deep and we had to ly in it till morning.
Letter to Rufus Hamilton October 13, 1780
You cannot conceive how disagreeable time itself appeared to me on my first arrival in Camp having Just left the rural enjoyments of Domestick life, and obliged to conform to the strick regulations and implicit obedience of a Military government, but this being become habitual and familiar I am tolerable reconciled to my present situation.
Letter to Charles Bruce January 2, 1781
After retireing from the field to winter Quarters my Quarters weir in Tents together with the Regiment, till the second Instant when the Regiment moved into Barracks. But still many Embarrassments occur which render our situation disagreeable. Our wood is four miles to fetch by warter and then a bad hill which is equill to one mile more. Now I leave you to Judg whether I am happy or not.
Crime and Punishment, September 18, 1778
Serjt. Peck of Capt Bensons Compy got Reduced to Ranks for Going into an oarchard after apples. Adjt Trotter and Lieut Cooper had their Swords Taken from them for Getting into a Turnip yard after Turnips.
May 11, 1779
At Piquet Mounting Elezr Howard of Capt Morses Compy., was Whipped Thirty Lashes each for fireing their Guns Contrary to Genl. orders.
June 10, 1779
In the Morning I went to the Baggage Waggon and got my Pack. At Evening Roll Call Serjt. Welsh of Colo. Greatons Regt., Serjt. Chamberlin of Colo. Put/mans Regt. Was Whipped one Hundred Lashes Each for Theft.
Social Life, May 6, 1778
Fair. Serjt. Bragg Brought Marcy into Camp at night.
May 6, 1778
Clear and warm. At Ngt Marcy was here.
April 1, 1779
A clear warm day. At Night Went to the Comisy store and Drank Grogg Freely.
August 5, 1779
At Night all the S Majors & Qr. M. Serjt. And number of serj ants walk out as far as Mr. Bassets. Had a heigh caper and a number fine Girls to convers with.
August 19, 1779
In the afternoon the Brigade paraded for Alarm but weir Dismist again. At Night I got a pass to peeks kill Hollow and Six Serjst Belonging to the Brigade went to John Drakes and had a Civill frolick and plenty of Groog and a number of Young Ladies.
Letter to Captain Jonathan Stone, March 1, 1783
We have established a Seraglio at a place Vulgalarly callen Wyoma where we have super fine Kippen (prostitutes) Issued immediately on application. We draw on separate orders, I make my returns once a week and receive a full ration without giving a receipt for the same.
(The use of seraglio is accurate in that the original meaning of the word was a place for women, a harem. However, Gilbert’s seraglio would better be called a brothel.)
Civilian Life, March 9, 1780
At 11 oClock I sat out to go to [a] Weding. Went to Mr Nathl. Bartles and got back to Balls by four and Staid till Just night. Then went to Decon Hamiltons wheir I saw Mr Reuben Hamilton and Miss Elisabeth Woodbury Join hands in wedlock bands. Staid and Danc’d all night.
May 15, 1780
In the fore noon I covered corn. At noon Levi Barns Inlisted during the war. After noon I rode to Braintree. Got home by 7 oClock in the Evening. I was at Peter Hills to a Dance.
For Further Reading:
Ruddiman, John, Becoming Men of Some Consequence, (2014).
Mass, John, The Road to Yorktown: Jefferson, Lafayette and the British Invasion of Virginia
Shy, John, Winding Down: The Revolutionary War Letters of Lieutenant Benjamin Gilbert
Symmes, Rebecca, A Citizen-Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Benjamin