Young Private in the Continental Army
The American Revolution forever transformed the world of Jeremiah Greenman, as it did with thousands of other young people in America who wanted to test their mettle by standing up for liberty in the face of tyranny. His parents, Jeremiah Sr. and Amy Wiles Greenman, had lived in quiet anonymity by the sea in Newport, Rhode Island, where Jeremiah Jr. was born May 7, 1758. During the crisis of the British colonies young Jeremiah enlisted in Rhode Island’s “Army of Observation,” just two weeks after his seventeenth birthday in 1775. Upon the completion of his long and arduous service to his country, that seventeen-year old boy had become a competent, promising officer in his middle twenties, ready to make his fortune in a new republic. Wounded three times and taken prisoner twice, Jeremiah faced many trials, yet the experiences and expectations of this young private from Newport, Rhode Island echoed those of a Revolutionary generation.
After the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in upper New York state in May 1775, General Washington saw a real opportunity to seize the Canadian fortress-city of Quebec. Jeremiah Greenman was among those who participated in the historic assault. Enlisting in the Continental Army in September 1775, Jeremiah reached the St. Lawrence River in November after a difficult and bitterly cold march which nearly exhausted the army’s supplies. At one point, “our provision being very Short hear we killed a dog,” of which Jeremiah “got a small piece of it.” Disease ravaged the Continental soldiers, as “the small pox” was “very plenty among us.” The ensuing attack on Quebec proved a disaster for the Americans, as Jeremiah witnessed “Sum of our Company dieth with ye small pox,” while others fell from “a very brisk cannading [artillery fire].” By December 31, the snow doomed the American expedition, as “our men[‘s] arms being wet we could not do much.” Surrender followed later that day, and as Jeremiah explained, the British “marched us into a french Jessewit Collage [Jesuit College].”
Now a prisoner at Quebec, Jeremiah faced the worst challenge of his young life. The Americans lived in cramped conditions with “Not a nuf to lay down to sleep,” and subsisted on provisions which included “Stinking Salmond.” Disease continued to spread through the ranks, “the Small pox . . . amung us / 40 men Sick in prison with it now.” Others suffered from influenza or pneumonia, as conditions through March proved “very Cold indeed.” After five months of imprisonment, Jeremiah’s spirit became “very discontented and quite out of hope of ever being reliv’d.” The British “hardly give us liberty to look out of ye windows,” and occasionally “put us [in] Irons sum leg bolts & sum hankufs wich [which] was very uncumfertable.” Finally, as a part of a prisoner exchange, Jeremiah boarded a British ship, and left Quebec for New York. On September 24, 1776, he celebrated his pending release by “drinking grog &c that we got out of the Stuard room.” The following morning, barefoot but free, he returned to Patriot hands “to the greatest of joy after being a prisoner almost 9 month.”
Upon his return to Rhode Island, Jeremiah received only four months pay, despite his enduring so long as a prisoner. Just eighteen years old, he was already a veteran, yet when British troops landed in Newport at the end of 1776, Jeremiah once again enlisted. Thanks to his previous service, he earned the rank of sergeant in the Second Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Army. Although the situation in Newport appeared serious, the British threat to Philadelphia was even more critical, and Jeremiah’s regiment marched south to join Washington’s main force. In October 1777, the defense of Forts Mifflin and Mercer on the lower Delaware River became crucial. American control of these forts would stop the resupply of British-occupied Philadelphia, and force the enemy to evacuate. Jeremiah himself was aware of the critical nature of the defense, knowing the British “hoped to soon be in/possession of the Fort & as it was very important, for [the British] remaining in Philadelphia to have the Communication open to their Shipping.”
Jeremiah could scarcely believe the intensity of battle each side poured into the bloody struggle for Fort Mifflin. By October 23, 1777, the fighting escalated with the arrival of a British squadron, and “one of the Most Solumest Actions commenced, that may be seen by a soldiers eye.” For Jeremiah “the Spectacle was magnificent,” as the river ignited with “four great fire ships, in a blase, floating on the water.” Artillery from each side opened fire, American “gallies” engaged the British vessels, and the English infantry stormed the fort. The constant bombardment of Fort Mifflin wore heavily on its defenders, as “the fetigue in a place where no body could sleep on account of the numerious shells” mounted daily. Finally, on November 15, Fort Mifflin being “open on all sides, without a single gun, it was no longer a Defence for the River,” the Americans set fire to what remained and retreated. Although the British succeeded in their objective, the rugged defense of two weak American outposts for more than a month proved the mettle of the Second Rhode Island Regiment. After a brief encampment at Valley Forge, Washington sent these battle-hardened heroes back to Rhode Island, to recruit and drill others.
Jeremiah spent very little time in Rhode Island before his regiment returned to Washington’s army to face the British at the Battle of Monmouth. After this engagement, Jeremiah marched once again to Rhode Island, and participated in the failed attempt to dislodge the British army at Newport. Yet his own fortunes continued to climb, and in 1779 he was made a commissioned officer. Returning to Morristown, New Jersey for winter quarters in 1779-1780, he enjoyed the privileges of his rank. As “the mens huts was near compleated,” he moved “into one of the Serjeants Huts, puting them amongst the men till our Hut could be fit to move into.”
In 1780-1781, Jeremiah spent the war quietly keeping watch over the British in the New York area. Ironically, Loyalist militia captured him in May 1781, on the day he was promoted to first lieutenant. As an officer, Jeremiah received much different treatment than he did as an enlisted man at Quebec. Furloughed to Gravesend, Long Island, he spent the summer in relative freedom, listening to the Loyalists gossip about the war. His capture prevented him from participating at the Battle of Yorktown, yet after his exchange, he delighted to “hear the Most Glorious News Confirmed of Cornwalleses being taken by our Illustris Commander in Chief and the French Army.” For the remainder of the war, Jeremiah acted as regimental adjutant for the Rhode Island troops, remaining on active service until the formal peace in 1783.
Jeremiah returned to Providence after the war and started a retail store with Joseph Masury, a Revolutionary army buddy. In 1784 he married Mary Eddy, the daughter of a prosperous shipwright in Providence, and he quit his business to enter the merchant marine in 1785. Jeremiah rose to become master of the schooner Alice in 1790, but a military career remained the most desirable path to him. He asked his old commander, Jeremiah Olney, to sponsor his appointment as a Captain in the newly expanded U.S. Army, but he settled for a commission as second mate aboard the revenue cutter Argus. In 1799, he returned to the merchant marine, becoming half-owner of the schooner Jerushia, but the sea finally worn him down, and in 1806 the now forty-seven year old Jeremiah removed his family to Waterford, Ohio. Elected Justice of the Peace on several occasions in 1812-1816, his request for an army pension in 1818-1821 failed. A month before his death, Jeremiah, now seventy-one years old, delivered an election speech on behalf of President John Quincy Adams. Although Ohio voted for Andrew Jackson, Waterford residents overlooked Jeremiah’s recent political views after his death on November 15, 1828. His gravestone provided a lasting testimony of how family, friends, and fellow Ohio residents regarded the Revolutionary War hero:
“Revolutionary Soldier — in memory of Jeremiah Greenman Esq an active officer in that army which bid defiance to Britons power and established the independence of the United States.”
Primary Source Documents: Jeremiah Greenman
All documentary selections are taken from Robert C. Bray and Paul E. Bushnell, eds., Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783: An Annotated Edition of the Military Journal of Jeremiah Greenman (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978).
On the March across Maine to Quebec
T[uesday] 31. [October 1775] Set out this morn very early / left 5 sick men in the woods that was not abel to march / left two well men with them but what litel provision thay hed did not last them / we gave out of our little / every man gave sum but the men that was left was obliged to leave them to the mercy of wild beast / this day we ware pasing along the river we saw 3 Cannows that went forward with the advance party stove against ye rok [rocks]/ we had very bad traviling the woods and Swamps / our provision being very Short hear we killed a dog / I got a small piece of it and sum broth that it was boyled with great de[al] of trubel / then, lay down took our blancots and slept] very harty for the times.
S[aturday] 23. [December 1775] the small pox very [common] amung our troops / a very brisk cannading / our Detach’t was drawn up and form’d a Square–genl Montgomery asked us if we ware wiling to storm the city & the biger part of them seam willing for to s[t]orm the city / th enemy thoeth [throweth] Shells in to Saint rox and very planty kill and wound a few / we return as many back to them.
A Prisoner at Quebec
F[riday] 16 to T[hursday] 29. [February 1776] very Cold indeed / we git sum wheat that is [in] bags below ware we go after wood and burn it wich makith very good Coffe and selling sum of our thing we git sum money & so we have once in a wile Sum Caffe. Sum more of ye old Countery men desarted that listed out of prison and the rest of them wass put into prison again / the enemy went out after our Cannon that was on abrahams plains but return’d without them faster than thay went out. thare layeth 60 men Sick in prison. thay ware all sent to the aspital [hospital] ware thay was used kindly / thare was not more than 4-5 died with the Small pox out of all that went to the aspital [hospital].
M[onday] 23 to T[uesday] 24. [September 1776] this morn we got in readyness to go a Shore / we pasported to be landed very soon but ware disapinted again. the Stuard of ye Ship gone ashore by wich we could not have any provisions for 24 howers [hours] . . . we ware to be landed at Elisabeth town point / about 12 o’Clock we heft up our anchor came to elisabeth town ware we land one boat / Lord we lay hear drinking grog &c that we got out of the Stuard room / all hands on deck dansing & Courrousin all Night.
At the Battle of Forts Mifflin and Mercer
T[hursday] 23. [October 1777] the fore part of this day implying ourselves in burying the dead 73 buried in one grave 4 or 5 in [an]other / about 9 o’clock the Ships Eagle, Summersit, Isis, agusta, Pearl Leverpool & Several Frigates with a Galley, came up to the Chevaux de frize 500 yards from the fort, at the same time the Land Batteries & our gallies, & the British S[q]uadron engaged and one of the Most Solumest Actions commenced, that may be seen by a soldiers eye, the Spectacle was magnificent, to see at once, the river covered with Ships, four great fire ships, in a blase, floating on the Water / the Island & Main covered with Smoak & Fire / part of the English Army drew up in battle array on Province Island ready to th[r]o them selves into boats, to storm the Fort, which appeared involved with fire & was the prise of the day, the firing lasted ’till 2 o’clock PM. with [rel]entless fury. The Fort frequently fired red hot balls / Likewise one of the floating Batterys & either by chance or good luck one of these shot set [afire] the Augusta, a 64 gun Ship, the nearest to the Chevaux frize / (She] suddenly took fire at the stern, and in a moment She wass a blase, & soon after blew up, with a thundering noise, before the Enemy could take out all their hands (our gallies was so nigh her at this time that several peaces fell board of them in which one officer & a number of men wounded / a Moment after the Merlin, a 22 gun Frigate ran a shore below the Agusta nigh to this shore so that she was reached by Genl. Varnum’s Battery, and as she could not be moved from the explosion, took fire & also blew up, the other ships frightened by the fate of those two retired below hog island, & the Land Batteries (which had hoised the Blody flag to warn the garrison that they were not to expect any quarter) continuing the firing from Province Island ’till Evening & then a plenty of Shells / the troops that where to storm did not attempt & the Victory yet remained to the fort and gallies.
Taken Prisoner Again
M[onday] 14. [May 1781] This morning was alarmed by the appearance of a party of Cavalry supported by Infantry, which proved to be Delancey’s Corps of Refugees (Loyalist militia] / they soon surrounded me and being vastly superiour in force — & having no prospect of escape, I thought it most adviseable to surrender myself and Guard prisoners of War . .
News of the Battle of Yorktown
S[aturday] 6. [October 1781] this day a Fleet appear’d off at Sandy Hook Consisting of about 40 Sail which proved to be Adml. Graves in a Most Shatter’d Condition, Sum with their Masts gone and others with yards &C — and to compleat without part of the French Fleet which they was to bring with them when they returned –
F[riday] 26. [October 1781] . . . from Pumton came to New Entrum 12 miles from Pumton where made a halt on account of the Storm, and hear the Most Glorious News Confirmed of Conwalleses being taken by our Illustris Commander in Chief and the French army –
Letter of September 21, 1821, from Jeremiah Greenman to unnamed magistrate making a final appeal for an army pension. After Greenman made two declarations of his Revolutionary War service to local magistrates, John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, rejected the pension request on the grounds that Greenman’s financial “Circumstances” did not demonstrate a compelling reason for government assistance. The original letter is located in the pension records at The National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Waterford 21th Septr. 1821
Dear Sir– On receipt of the desision of the secretary at War on my declaration, from the pension Office dated 26th July 1821, and transmited by you, I can say that dureing 8 years & 7. month service in the Revolutionary War & some parts of that time before the enemy of my Country, that dureing that period of time that I never felt my heart recoil or my Spirit more dejected, than on reading the Secretaries oppinion on my schuidel [schedule] or property. My hopes & prospects to a future residence on this Terestiacal [Terrestrial] Globe, it seams are to be filled up with mortification of spirit & attended with hard labour what few remaining yeas [years] I am permited to tarry on it, being proscibed by the Laws of that Country I had faithfully served 8 years & I might Justly say 12, haveing served it four Years since ye Revolutionry War, under a Commision from Genl. Washing[ton], which commison I now have. Three different times has my blood been spilt to help gain her Independence, five Month laying in Irons out of Sixteen a prisoner of War, led a forlorn hope at the Attack on Quebeck, since which time 10 different Actions, often selected for Extra sevice which I preformed, & gave sattisfaction, more than once to the Commander in Chief. . . But to return, is it possible that on mature deliberation the Secretary of War will posit in ordering my name to continue struck from the pension list & retain others whose service was of so short a duration, and some of which to my Own Knowledge reced [received] large bounties, on their short term of Inlistments, & ammounted to more money in hand than a Continental solder ever received for three Years or dureing the War, & never saw the enemy dureing their time of Service & many of then in bodyly health & their property far superior to mine but they have sworn! . .
. . amongst many Circumstances that I might pen, that a little merrit where ’tis due might mitigate the Mistaken notion of my being rich because I formerly wore desent Cloathing, and put me one that almost a beger equal to some of our old patriots Excuse my lengthy rhapsody. You Sir know my Circumstances & also know my inability to compose a subject fit to go before the Secretary of War—
I am Sir with respect yours &c.
For Further Reading:
John Alden, A History of the American Revolution (1969).
Brendan Morrissey, Quebec 1775: The American Invasion of Canada (2003).
Harrison Bird, Attack on Quebec (1968).
Robert Hatch, Thrust for Canada: The American Attempt at Quebec in 1775-1776 (1980).