by Tina Ordone
My most frustrating family line is my Wheeler line, given that I can’t find any parents for the subject of this essay. There isn’t a lot known about Stephen, other than he had several children, by at least three different “wives”, and the first two “wives” are unknown. He died at 70 years old, with very little history having been written about him. One thing that we know is his military history, with him having served in the Revolutionary War. I decided to research the war, using Stephen’s own military records, and write a story based on the facts and the military records.
Stephen was a young boy when he enlisted, and this is the story of his military career in the Revolutionary War.
According to his muster cards, Stephen served in the Army from May 19, 1777 to May, 1780
In December 1776, thousands of six- month enlistments in the Continental Army were expiring, and when this happened, soldiers simply packed up what few belongings they might have, and walked home. Very few of these soldiers would return to the fight, after having endured the many hardships of war, and very few new recruits were making their way to the battlefields either. It seemed that Washington’s army would melt away entirely. The situation was so bad that Thomas Paine would lament in his pamphlet The Crisis: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.”
In order to understand the enlistment of a young boy, our Stephen Wheeler, into the service of his country, we need to know what was going on in the fight just before his enlistment. The “rules” of war had changed, thanks to General George Washington’s newfound strategy, one borne of many defeats.
Eighteenth century warfare was carried on under strict, though unwritten “rules” designed to minimize the destruction of life and property. For instance, armies did not fight during the winter months. Getting supplies to soldiers was a tricky business even during good weather. In winter, a sudden blizzard could strand thousands of soldiers and threaten them with frostbite and starvation. Another of the “rules” was that nighttime marching and fighting not be done. Soldiers could get lost at night or unknowingly fire on their own. However, Washington wanted to completely surprise the enemy and what better way than to attack at night.
It was also good practice for one side to surrender as soon as it saw it could not win a battle or war. By not forcing the victor to expend a lot of needless blood, the loser hoped to get more lenient peace terms. Such “rules” made perfect sense and most countries followed them. Of course, most countries didn’t have George Washington commanding their Army.
On December 25, 1776, Washington marched his troops into Trenton where a large number of Hessian soldiers were stationed. A winter storm was raging, enhancing the chances that the Hessians would be indoors trying to stay dry and warm.
“It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm setting in,” Colonel John Fitzgerald noted as the American troops set off. “The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have not shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain. They are ready to suffer any hardship and die rather than give up their liberty.”
Washington’s plan worked. Washington struck the Hessians from one side while General John Sullivan attacked from the other. Caught between two advancing forces, the Hessians “were frightened and confused,” Fitzgerald reported happily, “for our men were firing on them from fences and houses and they were falling fast. Instead of advancing they ran into an apple orchard…It was not long before they threw down their guns and gave themselves up as prisoners.” One thousand Hessians were taken prisoner. Among those killed was the commandant of the Hessian troops, Colonel Johann Rall. Only two weeks before, he had referred to the American army as “country clowns”.
The British were enraged by Washington’s move and sent a large force out to crush the upstart Americans. Washington and his army managed to slip away, this time defeating the British rear guard at Princeton along the way. After this, the British recalled their troops and went into winter camp to brood and plan. American forces also retired for the winter at Morristown, New Jersey, though in a much happier mood. In the brief space of nine days, the fragile American forces had pulled off two stunning victories, taken valuable supplies and most important, revived American spirits.
This positive feeling carried over in to the spring of 1777, and probably resulted in thousands of enlistments to the American cause. Stephen Wheeler was one of them. Putting aside any reservations he might have had, he signed up on May 19, 1777 for the duration of the war.
Though we don’t know much about the life of Stephen Wheeler before or after the war, we do know quite a bit about the time he spent in Captain John Johnson’s Co., of the 5th New York Regiment of Foot, commanded by Colonel Lewis DuBois during the American Revolution.
Stephen started his enlistment at the tender age of 16. This was a common age of enlistment at the time. It’s been said that the revolution was a young man’s war. As many young men of that age, he must have been hearing stories from men and boys who were returning from their service.
Messengers were sent into the countryside regularly, to relate the events of war. The people of upstate New York, as well as the rest of the colonies already knew that the British has forced them to pay unfair taxes, to pay for the French and Indian War that the British had fought some years before. They also knew that their rights were restricted due to the imposition of a series of bills called “the Intolerable Acts” which taxes everything of use to the colonists. When the Declaration of Independence was signed the year before, things changed for the colonists. Now they had their cause to fight for. If they were to suffer taxation without representation, they wanted their freedom from King George III. Freedom was their cause and it was up to the young men in their midst to fight for it.
Volunteers were called to defend the area in case the British decided to march in, and a ten dollars was offered for each person who enlisted for three years or during the war. No doubt the ten dollars looked good to Stephen, but he must have held back some wondering if he had what it took to go into battle. After having heard the war stories from veterans, he had to know some of what was going on, and the picture certainly wasn’t pretty. We know nothing at this time of Stephen’s home life. We wonder if his father was living, and if he had a bunch of siblings, but we don’t know, because we have not been able to find out who his family was or even where he came from. His daughter Lydia stated in an application for pension in 1898 that he was “supposed to have come from Massachusetts or Connecticut”, but we don’t know for sure. One thing that we know for sure is that Stephen himself was a farmer and poor. It is likely that this condition lasted his entire life. The ten dollars that was offered for his service certainly would have helped his family. This was the motivation of many of the young men who served in that war.
With the stories of heroism and glory, many a young boy ‘s imagination ran wild. Courage became something that was expected, both from his elders and himself. As described in the book “A Young Patriot”, “by hearing the conversations and disputes of the good old farmer politicians of the times”, young men had “collected pretty correct ideas of the contest between this country and the mother country (as it was then called).” Proudly he was “as warm a patriot as the best of them; the war was waged; we had joined issue….” And “felt anxious…to be called a defender of my country.” Then as his fellow youths staggered back from their service, and told of their narrow escapes, did the thought “O, that was too much to be borne…by me” nag at him?
One other question nagged at him no doubt. “How long would he have to serve?” The main American force, called the Continental Army, required that individuals who enlisted to serve for one year. For a young boy, that was a very long time to be away from home and family. By the time Stephen enlisted, the requirement was “three years or during the war.” It was not until 1779 that the terms of their enlistments were defined. The soldiers interpreted it to mean three years, the government insisted it meant for the duration. The soldiers eventually won, but only after many desertions and several mutinies. Stephen’s muster cards read “during the war”, though his enlistment was up in May 1780 and that is when he was separated from the Army.
Conditions for the men were difficult to say the least, and though these weren’t “officially” mentioned, tales of the hardships drifted back home. “Food, clothing, and ammunition were in short supply, enemy forces outnumbered the Americans and more redcoats were on the way, and many patriots had already been killed or wounded.” However, the new recruits were told that the specified daily ration of a soldier in Continental service at the that time was three quarters of a pound pork, or one pound of beef or salt fish, one pound of flour or bread, three pints of peas or beans weekly, one pint of milk or one penny in lieu thereof, one pint of Indian meal or rice weekly, twenty-four pounds of soft or eight of hard soap to every hundred men weekly, and candles for men on guard duty at night. Could Stephen tell his family of the decision that weighed so heavily on his mind or were they the very ones who were encouraging his enlistment? As many young men did, he signed his name “fairly upon the indentures.” It was done and he was a soldier, in deed if not in practice. However, there would be plenty of time and there was still plenty of war to be fought.
We have copies of the Company Muster Roll cards, on which records were kept of a man’s whereabouts during his enlistment. On Stephen’s, it states that he was a member of Captain John Johnson’s Company of the 5th New York Regiment of Foot, commanded by Colonel Lewis DuBois. Colonel DuBois had distinguished himself during the Battle of Quebec in the summer of 1775, when, as a captain, he commanded a company of the 3rd Regiment of the New York line, under James Clinton, brother of the governor of New York, George Clinton. DuBois’ commission was issued on June 28, 1775.
His company was known as the Duchess Company. Legend has it that Lewis DuBois was just feet away from Brigadier General Richard Montgomery when he was killed in Quebec on December 1, 1775. While in the field in Quebec, DuBois was raised from captain to major. In a letter dated February 1, 1776, General Benedict Arnold wrote to the President of Congress a long letter, giving reasons why a certain Major Brown should not be promoted, and ended the letter by saying “This transaction, Major DuBois and several gentlemen were knowing to.” This illustrates that Lewis DuBois was already a Major on February 1, 1776. On March 8, 1776, he was made a major in Colonel John Nicholson’s regiment raised in Canada out of the four New York regiments which originally went there, the term of their enlistment, being for only six months, having expired.
At the time of the return of the expedition, which went to Canada, there were four regiments of the line enlisted for three years or during the war, existing in the State of New York. It was determined to raise a fifth. The preliminary step seems to have led to a clash of authority between the Continental Congress and the Provincial Congress. On the 26th of June, 1776 John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, wrote a letter to the Provincial Convention in which enclosed a notice that Lewis DuBois, major in the Canada Service, was commissioned June 25, 1776, by the Continental Congress, with instruction to raise a regiment for three years or during the war, to be the Fifth Regiment of the New York line, and that the Continental Congress had, on June 26th, appointed the other officers of the regiment. There was a problem that the Provincial Convention saw with the list of officers, but they never had a problem with Lewis DuBois, who was raised to the rank of Colonel on November 17, 1776.
The Continental Congress gave orders that “the other officers of the battalion I am to request you will be please to appoint and exert every nerve to equip the battalion as soon as possible. As an additional encouragement the Congress had resolved that a bounty of ten dollars be given to every soldier who shall enlist for three years.”
While the Fifth Regiment was forming, Colonel DuBois was too zealous to remain inactive. The British were then in possession of New York. The Patriot army was in the vicinity of White Plains. On the 28th of January, 1777, William Duer, in a letter to General George Washington, dated from camp in Westchester County, said: “Col. DuBois, who has come down with the York militia as a volunteer and who has repeatedly offered his service to destroy King’s Bridge, will, I fear, return tomorrow, despairing to see anything effectual done.”
For the first year, the muster cards don’t reveal where he was stationed. The card for the month of August says that he was sick. The standard operating procedure for sick soldiers was to make a bed of dried leaves and rest. No doctor was there to tend to him and very little food or water was available. In September, his card says “on guard”. This was likely at Fort Montgomery, as this is the card that covered September 1 through November 1, 1777.
On his application for pension, which he signed in September of 1820, he states that he was in the Battle of Fort Montgomery. This is supported by history. The 5th, along with the 2nd, 3rd and 4th, were all present during the Battle of Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton on October 6, 1777.
Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton
Early in 1777, the Fifth Regiment was ordered to garrison duty at Fort Montgomery. Fort Montgomery has been described as one of the “crowned high-points of the Highlands.” Their height and isolation afforded facilities for being capable of protracted resistance to any ordinary force. Ordinary would be the operative word here. Being on the west bank of the Hudson River, it was in the range of fire from ships and bomb-ketches. Fort Montgomery was large and at the time unfinished. The garrison consisted of one company of artillery, a few regulars, and some half-armed militia, hastily assembled from the adjoining counties. “A boom and heavy iron chain extended from the foot of the river-cliff to “Anthony’s Nose,” a sharp promontory on the opposite side of the Hudson. Colonel John Lamp commanded the post.
Fort Clinton was on the south side of Poplopen’s creek, smaller and in more of a state of completion than Montgomery. Its garrison consisted of a few regulars and raw militia, under the command of Brigadier-general James Clinton.
On the east side of the river, northward nearly seven miles, and opposite West Point, was Fort Constitution.
Twelve miles southward, and five miles below Fort Clinton was Fort Independence. General Israel Putnam was in general command of the Highland range of defenses, with his headquarters near Peekskill, where a depot of supplies had been established. This post was also the general rendezvous for the inter-transit of troops between New England and the Middle States.
The detachment sent from his command to that of Major General Phillip Schuyler had so reduced his force that his chief dependence was on the militia of the immediate vicinity and of Connecticut.
Advices had been received that an expedition (British) had been organized in New York for a demonstration up the Hudson. Governor George Clinton promptly ordered a considerable militia force to report to General Putnam, but that officer furloughed the men during fall harvest and seed time, because the New York garrison seemed to rest quietly in their quarters. Gov. Clinton promptly changed the program, ordering one-half of the militia, however, to spend a month on their farms, while the remainder were ordered to assemble at the mouth of Poplopen’s creek and Peekskill. Before this modified order, however, could take effect, and while the entire force which had assembled for the defense of Forts Clinton and Montgomery was less than six hundred and fifty me, the expedition, led by Sir Henry Clinton, (no stated relation) from New York was in full activity.”
Sir Henry Clinton was heading north with 8,500 men, fit for duty. On October 3, 1777, 1,100 troops were transported from New York to Spuyten Duyvel Creek, then to Tarrytown, where they landed on the morning of the fourth.
A second division, about the same number of men, marched from King’s Bridge to Tarrytown by land, reaching the same place the same day.
A third division took transports from New York on October 4th, under convoy of the Preston frigate, the Mercury and the Tartar.
On the same night, by 40 flat boats, besides ships and galleys, under the convoy of the vessels of Sir James Wallace, the entire command was advanced to Verplanck’s Point, where it landed on or about the 5th. It “made every appearance of their intention to land, both at Fort Independence and Peekskill.
Governor Clinton was watchful of every movement. He adjourned the legislature, then at Kingston and made his way to Fort Montgomery to lend his support to the garrison and to watch the approaches by the Haverstraw Road, which passed through the mountains.
Sir Henry transferred his army from Verplanck’s Point to Stony Point, early on the morning of the 6th. The demonstration of Sir James Wallace up the river completely masked the main movement by King’s Ferry, and a heavy fog so obscured the view that General Putnam, who discovered a large fire at the ferry on the west side, supposed that a party had landed for the sole purpose of destroying the storehouses at that point. General Putnam’s reports show that he was totally deceived by these events.
Sir Henry had 500 regulars, consisting of the 52nd and 27th regulars and Emerick’s chasseurs, with 400 Provincials commanded by Lt. Col. Campbell and Col. Robinson of the Provincials, second in command. These troops marched to occupy the pass of Dunderberg (Thunder Hill). This detachment was ordered “to make the detour of 7 miles round this hill and Bear Hill, to the rear of Fort Montgomery.”
General Vaughn, with 1200 men, consisting of grenadiers, light infantry, the 26th and 63rd regiments, one company of the 71st and one troop of dismounted dragoons, and the Hessian Chasseurs, covering the corps of Lt. Col. Campbell, until it should pass Dunderberg; was to halt at the point where that corps took its course around Bear Hill to the left and upon its approach to Fort Montgomery, was to move by the right to storm Fort Clinton from the South.
General Tryon, with the 7th Regiment and the Hessian regulars of Trumbach, cooperating with General Vaughn, was to occupy the pass and preserve communication with the fleet, and ultimately that officer joined General Vaughn and participated in the final assault upon Fort Clinton.
On the evening of the fifth, Gov. Clinton “sent Major Samuel Logan, of the Fifth Regiment, who was well acquainted with the ground, through the mountains to reconnoiter. He returned at 9 o’clock on Monday, with the information that a considerable force was between King’s Ferry and Dunderberg; but the numbers could not be discovered on account of fog.” Lt. Patten Jackson, of the Fifth Regiment, marched out two miles on the Haverstraw Road with a small party, but was compelled to retire.
Lt. Col. Bruyn of the Fifth Regiment, with 50 Continental Troops and as many militia under Lt. Col. McLaughry, were sent to support Lt. Jackson, but they were too late to seize the pass and fell back slowly, in good order, “disputing the ground inch by inch.” Gov. Clinton was the life of the defense of both posts. A dispatch was sent to General Putnam asking for reinforcements. Lt. Col. Lamb was directed to send a six-pounder, (pictured) the only field piece at Fort Montgomery, with 60 men and a supporting party of the same strength to check the advance of Lt. Col. Campbell, who was approaching that fort. This detachment fought with great spirit, but had to retire, abandoning the gun after spiking it. A second detachment was hurried to their support and a 12 pounder was advanced to cover their retreat, which was accomplished with some loss, including Captain Fenno, who was taken prisoner. This was about two in the afternoon, as stated in the official report of Gov. Clinton. The attack upon the fort was maintained until 5 o’clock, when a flag was sent up, demanding a surrender. This was refused and fight continued until dusk, when the works were stormed on all sides and the garrison made their best efforts to escape.”
In Sir Henry Clinton’s report, he states that “after the advanced parties before Fort Clinton were driven into the works, Trumbach’s regiment was posted at the stone wall to cover our retreat in case of misfortune” and “The works were stormed at the point of the bayonet, without a shot being fired.” He reports his “loss as not very considerable, excepting in some respectable officers who were killed in the attack. Lt. Col. Campbell was killed in the assault on Fort Montgomery, as were Count Grabowski – aid-de-camp of Sir Henry Clinton, Majors Sill and Grant and Captain Stewart. Commodore Hotham in his official report states the British Loss at about 40 killed and 150 wounded.” The American loss was not far from 300 killed, wounded and missing. A list of 237 who were taken prisoner is given by Eager in his history of Orange County.
General James Clinton received a bayonet wound, but escaped to the mountains, as did the larger part of the garrison. Gov. Clinton safely crossed the Hudson on a skiff and joined General Putnam. Putnam only the day before the attack upon the forts, had withdrawn Col. Malcolm’s regiment from the pass of Sydhams bridge, had detailed Major Moffatt with 200 men from the garrison to supply his place and transferred 60 more to Anthony’s Nose. But for this ill-timed action, the American position would have been greatly strengthened.
One hundred cannons, including sixty-seven in the forts and others on vessels and considerable quantities of powder, cartridges and shot were trophies of the assault. The boon, chain and chevaux de frise, which they protected, were displaced and the frigates Montgomery and Congress, which had been ordered down the river by General Putnam for defense of the boom, were burned to forestall capture.
General Putnam was let to expect an attack upon his own immediate post. He returned to the heights behind Peekskill and after consultation with General Parsons “thought it impracticable to quit that position to attack the enemy.” His official report states, that on his return with General Parsons, “we were alarmed with a very heavy and hot firing, both of small arms and cannon at Fort Montgomery, upon which I immediately detached 500 men to reinforce the garrison; but before they could possibly cross to their assistance, the enemy, superior in numbers, had possessed themselves of the fort.”
As a result of the occupation of these forts, Peekskill was abandoned, then Forts Independence and Constitution and General Putnam retreated to Fishkill. The expedition of Sir Henry Clinton was a success. Continental Village, three miles above Peekskill was burned by British troops and a considerable amount of supplies were taken or destroyed.
Sir Henry Clinton retired to New York and General Putnam, reinforced by militia from Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, soon re-occupied Peekskill, and after the surrender of Burgoyne, additional Continental troops were sent from the Northern army.
It is necessary to say that the presence of an intelligent commanding officer of reasonable military skill or the absolute control of the posts by Governor Clinton would have prevented the loss of Forts Clinton and Montgomery.”
Note: Governor George Clinton and General James Clinton were brothers.
We can only imagine what Stephen was going through during this terrible battle. Can you imagine marching and coming upon wounded soldiers, with broken arms, legs and some with broken heads? Such unfamiliar sights were frightening and certainly had to make a young boy long for home.
One sight that had to give even seasoned officers pause would have to have been British soldiers in a perfect line, muskets leveled. “When powder in a musket was ignited, there was the crack of the explosion, followed by flames and billowing white smoke spitting from the front of the barrel and the flintlock. When 50 or 60 muskets were fired at the same time, it must have been like facing a terrifying fire-breathing demon.” During these times, a soldier had no time to be afraid as he had officers barking orders and his company was firing on the British. The American soldiers weren’t as organized as their counterparts, but effective enough to make the enemy withdraw and reload. Another frightening sight would have been the bayonet charge. A volley was fired off, creating a noise and smoke making machine. The volley was designed to frighten the enemy, and its drifting cloud of black smoke was the cover from which the bayonet charge would be launched. As the smoke cleared, the Americans would be terrified by the sight of these redcoats yelling “Hurrah!” or “God save the King” with leveled, gleaming bayonets. The American militia was terrified of the bayonet, and the British knew it. Many a British general’s hide was saved with the bayonet charge.
“Colonel Lewis DuBois’ “services in the army were held in high esteem by his contemporaries. Col. DuBois’ Fifth Regiment was especially the regiment of this (Newburgh) district both in its membership and in its services. It was stationed in the Highlands in the spring of 1777 and was there when Forts Clinton and Montgomery were taken by the English forces in October of that year. Through a mistaken conclusion arising from the fact that they were clothed in hunting shirts such as farmer’s servants in England wear, its dead in that action were ranked as militia by the British. The facts are that the brunt of the desperate and heroic resistance which was made fell on Col. Lewis DuBois’ regiment, shared by Lamb’s artillery. The returns of Col. DuBois’ Fifth as they stand on the roll books, 15 officers were taken prisoner, while “Missing in Action” was written against the name of ninety-six of the privates or not less than one-third of the whole strength of the regiment at that time. These men did not run–they were overwhelmed. While all of them were not killed, many were, and their bodies pierced by the bayonet for no gun was fired by the assaulting column–found resting place in the waters of “bloody pond”, where in the succeeding spring, with an arm, a leg or a part of the body above the surface they presented the scene of which Dwight describes as ‘monstrous’.
“In this engagement, Col. DuBois received a bayonet wound in the neck, as appears by a letter from General Putnam to General Gates, hereafter quoted from. This shows the desperate character of the fighting.
“The course of those who escaped appears quite clearly from an account of it by Rev. John Gano, chaplain of the Fifth Regiment, who wrote:
“The dusk of the evening, together with the smoke and rushing in of the enemy, made it impossible for us to distinguish friend or foe. This confusion gave us an opportunity of escaping through the enemy over the breastwork. Many escaped to the water and got on board a scow and pushed off. Before she had go twice her length we grappled on of our row-galleys into which we all got and crossed the river. We arrived safe at New Windsor, where, in a few days after we were joined by some more of our army who had escaped from the forts.”
General Clinton, writing to General Washington, says:
“Many officers and men and myself having the advantage of the enemy by being well acquainted with the ground, were so fortunate as to effect our escape under cover of the night after the enemy were possessed of all the works.”
It is not true, as often asserted, that Col. Lewis DuBois was taken prisoner at Fort Montgomery. Major Zachary DuBois, of Col. Jesse Woodhull’s regiment of Orange County militia, a brother of Col. Lewis DuBois, was taken a prisoner on Monday the 6th of October, 1777. He was discharged from captivity on August 6, 1778, in exchange for Major Thomas Moncrief, of his majesty’s army.
After the first shock of defeat the disaster was found not to be serious as at first supposed. General Putnam, writing to General Washington on October 8, 1777 from Fishkill, says:
“I have the pleasure to inform you that many more of our troops made their escape than what I was a first informed of. Colonel DuBois who is one of the number, this day collected near 200 of his regiment that got off after the enemy were in the Fort.”
General Putnam, writing to General Gates from Fishkill, eleven o’clock a.m., October 9, 1777:
“Colonel DuBois, who had a wound with a bayonet in his neck, has mustered near 200 of his men, who were with him in the action, many of whom have slight wounds with bayonets and swords but are in high spirits.”
We don’t know if he was one of the wounded, though he obviously wasn’t killed, and no mention has been made of him being one of the captives of the British. Talk about trial by fire! However, his military career was just starting. Before he is discharged, trial by fire turns to trial by ice, with desertion and hunger added for good measure.
On the muster card for February 1 to March 1, 1778, Stephen is shown to be in the hospital. Hospitals were poorly lit, filthy, stinking, reeking of blood and urine and filled with diseased and wounded men pleading pitifully for help from surgeons with neither the time nor the assistants nor the medicines to treat them. A ticket to a hospital was regarded as a sentence to a firing squad. On the battlefield many wounded were left to die because the surgeon believed they had no hope of recovery or because a retreating force could not allow the wounded to slow its flight. “Nothing was feared more than a Continental Army hospital. To be ticketed to one was like a passport to suffering and death. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the physician general of the Medical Department, who had resigned in disgust at a situation he could not correct, reported that most hospital rooms that were large enough for six or eight well men were crammed with twenty or more sick soldiers, all lying a few feed apart in shirts or blankets they had been wearing or using for five months and on beds of straw that were seldom changed. Most of them suffered from dysentery or pulmonary diseases, but because they were in such close proximity to one another, they were also vulnerable to those twin terrors: “jail” fever and “putrid” fever. Nine out of every ten cases of fever ended in death.” It appears that our Stephen was a lucky boy indeed.
The regiment was “in barracks” in Fishkill for the winter of 1777-1778. This where Washington’s main supply depots were located, and they needed protection. Its condition there was deplorable. In January, 1778, General Putnam wrote, “DuBois’ regiment is unfit to be ordered on duty, there being not one blanket in the regiment. Very few have either a shoe or a shirt and most of them neither stockings, breeches or overalls.” Chastellux writes that “many were absolutely naked, being only covered by straw suspended from the waist. The losses in stores at Fort Montgomery brought on this destitution very largely. It did not continue long after Putnam called Gov. Clinton’s attention to it.”
From April through May 12, 1778, Stephen was “on command” in Peekskill, New York. Major-General Israel Putnam, who had the general command of the Highlands, had his headquarters at Peekskill.
In June, the Fifth was headquartered in White Plains, NY. On July 22, “as ordered by General Washington, the New York continental brigade was formed with the First New York (Van Schaick’s), Second New York (Van Cortlandt’s), Fourth New York (Henry B. Livingston’s), and the Fifth New York (Lewis DuBois’) and placed under the command of Brigadier-General James Clinton, which, ‘by it’s perfect discipline, good conduct and gallantry in action, attracted the favorable notice of the continental officers from other states, and of the officers of the French army,’ to the end of the war of the Revolution.”
By muster records, we know that Stephen and the Fifth Regiment spent the winter of 1778-1779 at Peekskill and Schoharie. We can only imagine that that winter was not much different from the previous winter, after all, New York winters aren’t any easier even during war time.
The Clinton-Sullivan Campaign
With spring came a new campaign. “On April 21st, 1779, W. Malcolm writes to General Clinton from Minisink that his regiment has been incorporated with Spencer’s, all his officers except two or three have resigned and he shall do so too; moreover that the frontier is now unprotected; worst of all about 40 savages (who were British allies) have attacked Lacawack and burned the place and houses within 13 miles of the river.
“On the 25th of April, Col. Cortlandt writes from Rochester to General Clinton that he had received orders from General Washington to march his regiment (of which the Fifth and Stephen Wheeler were a part) immediately to Minisink and he supposes he will go to Wyoming, New York; his absence will leave the frontier unprotected.
“Two days later, April 27th, 1779, A. DeWitt, John Brodhead and 64 other citizens, writing from Rochester, send a petition to General Clinton stating that Col. Cortlandt (who had been protecting the frontier) had received marching orders from General Washington and asking that a sufficient guard be furnished to protect them from the savages.
“On April 29th Clinton writes to Cortlandt wishing him an agreeable march and stating that he had ordered a fourth part of Col. Cantine’s and a fourth part of Col. Snyder’s regiments to occupy the posts that he (Cortlandt) now holds, until he can relieve them by the levies intended for the defense of the frontier, not yet completed.
“On the 4th of May, Col. Cortlandt writes to General Clinton that just as he was marching his regiment he received an account of the burning of several houses in the Fantine kill. He marched to intercept the enemy, whom he saw, but could not surround, as they were on a mountain when discovered. They had burned four houses and killed 6 persons and perhaps three or four more. They had not killed any of the soldiers, nor had the soldiers been able to kill any of the Indians, though they exchanged shots with them at a long distance. The Indian band was thought to number 30 or 40. As he (Cortlandt) was under the most pressing orders to march with all expedition he forwarded this letter by express. He said in closing that Col. Cantine had gone to Lackawack and that he thinks not over 50 of the men who General Clinton had ordered had as yet arrived, although more might come the next day.
“In this attack, the Indians murdered Mrs. Isaac Bevier and her sister Mrs. Michael Sax and others, some eight in all. A number of neighbors fled across the mountain to Shawangunk.
“The next day General Clinton writes to Cortlandt that he had ordered out one fourth of Hardenbergh’s regiment and on fourth of McCloughry’s regiment to join Cantine and a like proportion of the three northern regiments of Orange county to such posts on the frontier of that county as the commanding officers shall deem best’ the same day Clinton writes to Cantine that he has ordered one fourth of Hardenbergh’s regiment and one fourth of McCloughry’s regiment to march immediately and put themselves under his command.”
About the middle of June, 1779, Clinton, in order to join Sullivan, began transporting his force from the Mohawk River by the way of Canajoharie and Springfield to Lake Otsego, the headwaters of the Susquehanna. Stephen Wheeler, according to his muster cards, was at Canajoharie Creek from May 1779 to June 23, 1779.
According to the diary of a Lieutenant Beatty of the 4th Pennsylvania Line, also part of Clinton’s force, on Monday, June 28, 1779, “This day the Colonel and a number of officers with myself went to see Col. Dubois and his officers who were encamped at Low’s Grove on the upper landing, found them all very well and they provided a very good dinner for us suitable to the place and time, there was about fifty officers dined together. After dinner we had a song or two from different officers and returned home a little before sundown. We were all very sociable at dinner and spent our time with the officers very agreeable.”
“In the summer of this year, General Clinton’s advice that it was necessary in order to have peace on the frontier that the Indian settlements should be destroyed was fully carried out. General James Clinton with five New York regiments (including the Fifth) united with General Sullivan and routed the Indians under their celebrated leader Joseph Brant, (pictured) near Elmira, with little resistance; then burned their villages and destroyed all food supplies. In this expedition into the Indian country, in what is now central New York, Colonel Lewis DuBois bore an important command.”
Clinton remained at Lake Otsego from the 3rd of July to the 9th of August awaiting orders from General Sullivan. When these orders came Clinton moved forward and effected a junction with Sullivan. In organizing for the fighting and devastation which followed, the hazardous position of commanding the right flank was assigned to Colonel DuBois, who had under him two companies of the German battalion and 200 picked men in addition. The army of Sullivan far outnumbered that of the Indians under the celebrated Chief Brant, aided by a few British regulars and tories. The enemy made but one serious effort to check the invaders. Behind a hastily constructed rampart, in the vicinity of Elmira, they made a stand, but were soon driven away. In this engagement, Colonel DuBois participated. The victorious army then turned northward and carried out the purpose of the expedition by burning many villages and destroying all food supplies. It was a work of devastation, and many that were there said that the measure was unnecessarily harsh. Be that as it may, the power of the Indians in the State of New York was broken by this expedition of General Sullivan.
Stephen participated in this mission, along with his fellow soldiers. What a thing for an 18 year old boy to have to do. In the two years that he had been in the Army, he had seen sights and done things that no man should ever have to do. His muster cards show that he was in this area of New York State until October 17, 1779.
His next muster card is very interesting. It is dated Oct. and Nov. 1779 to Dec. 12, 1779. He is in Camp Wick Farms, in Morristown, NJ. Wick Farms was a popular camp ground for General Washington’s army, and it also provided a place where deserters could be jailed or be “confined in provost”. On Stephen’s muster card there is the notation “returned from desertion and confined to provost”. Though it is not surprising that he would desert, given the circumstances of the previous two years, desertion was not something that was understood by the officers. There were several punishments for desertion, including death. According to “George Washington’s War” by Robert Leckie, desertion was handled in the following ways:
“Desertion, one of the Continental Army’s greatest problems, was punishable by death. A condemned man, his coffin borne before him, the doleful notes of the “Dead March” in his ears, would be paraded in front of his comrades while his sentence was read aloud. Approaching a freshly dug grave, the soldiers would lay his coffin beside it. Kneeling alongside, usually with a chaplain beside him, the condemned man would join the chaplain in prayer, until he was left alone and a firing squad of twelve soldiers came forward to end his life. Usually one of the muskets was unloaded, so that no one soldier could be sure he had killed his comrade. Also, this melancholy scene could end in soldierly shouts of joy when, at the last moment, a messenger rushed up with a reprieve. But for one soldier convicted of deserting seven times, each time re-enlisting to claim the bounty of twenty-five dollars, there was no reprieve.” This must have been horrible for a dedicated soldier, as young as he was. I am sure that he was missing home and that combined with being hungry, scared, cold or too hot, had to prove to be an unbearable temptation.
He was released from detention on December 12, 1779. On December 29, Colonel Lewis DuBois resigned his commission. This seems to have been brought about by the dwindling of all the regiments in the New York Brigade, for in the subsequent year the 1st and 3rd regiments were consolidated into one regiment, known as the 1st, under Colonel Van Schaick, and the 2nd, 4th and 5th and Colonel Livington’s regiment into another, known as the 2nd, under Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt.
Lewis DuBois, who was born in 1728, married twice and had several children. He enlisted in 1762. He was a prominent citizen of New Paltz, New York, as were his ancestors and descendants. After a long, successful military career and personal life, he died in 1802, in Marlborough, NY, followed five years later by his second wife, Rachel Jansen, whom he had married on December 17, 1756.
One Last Winter
After the invasion and devastation of the towns of the five Indian nations in Western New York, the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth New York regiments rejoined the main Continental Army in New Jersey, and went into winter quarters at Morristown. Washington had wintered there the previous year. Morristown was on a plateau in the Watchung Mountains. It overlooked the central New Jersey plain between New York and Philadelphia. It was convenient to the Highlands, in the event of any British moves northward up the Hudson. Stephen’s muster cards show that he was based in Morristown from December, 1779, until April, 1780, when camp broke. His enlistment was almost up, but he had one more winter to endure. It was to be his hardest test yet.
The army in winter quarters at Morristown was truthfully described by an historian, “fought cold, nakedness, and famine”. During the ‘great freeze’ of January, 1780, the suffering became intense. Washington found that even military constraint was unable to collect food from a region almost depleted of supplies. His transportation was so limited that it was with difficulty that fuel could be hauled for camp fires, and the troops were repeatedly without meat for two or three days.
On the 11th of January, Quartermaster General Nathaniel Greene wrote, “Such weather never did I feel. For six or eight days it has been so cold that there has been no living abroad, the snow is also very deep, and much drifted. We drive over the tops of fences. We have been alternately out of meat and bread for eight or nine days and without either for three or four.
When the soldiers first arrived in Morristown (Jockey Hollow) for their winter encampment, they had no choice but to sleep out in the open in the snow. Wagons with tents arrived a few days later than the soldiers did. Soldiers remained in the tents until the completion of the wooden huts. The soldier huts used at Jockey Hollow were fourteen feet by sixteen feet and housed twelve men.
General Washington ordered that enlisted men’s huts were to be built first. Therefore, officers huts were not built and completed until all the enlisted men were settled in huts. It took most of the soldiers about two to three weeks to build their huts. The majority of the enlisted men in the Continental Army were poor, lower class men. A good number of these men were not even born in America. Army officers, on the other hand, were from middle to upper class society and were often land owners. Enlisted men moved into their huts around Christmas. The last of the officers did not get to move into huts until February. The 1779-1780 winter at Jockey Hollow was the worst winter in over 100 years. Military camp conditions were so deplorable that many soldiers stole regularly just to eat, deserted or mutinied.
According to “George Washington’s War” by Robert Leckie, “nothing in the history of the trials of the Continental Army, not even the ordeal of Valley Forge, during the winter of 1777-78, compares to the cold white crucible of that second winter at Morristown. It was so cold that New York Harbor froze over. Howling blizzards lashed Morristown. Often officers, as well as men, were buried beneath deep drifts after the wind had blown their pitiful ragged tents away. Other soldiers without tents or blankets, barefoot and half-naked, struggled to build rude huts out of the oak and maple trees around them. ‘W have never experienced a like extremity at any period of the war’, Washington wrote, and soon he was complaining that his men lived off ‘every kind of horse food but hay’. Another day he wrote: ‘We have not at this day one ounce of meat, fresh or salt, in the magazine.’
“Food supplies grew scantier. And once again, while the Continentals suffered and died, the county side waxed fat and flourished. Washington’s only choice was to commandeer supplies, and just as he feared, he was hated for it. The situation was summed up by Alexander Hamilton, who wrote: ‘We begin to hate the country for its neglect of us. The country begins to hate us for our oppressions of them.’
Stephen’s muster cards again reveal that from January 14 to February 14, 1780, Stephen was “on furlough by Col. Cortlandt. He was at this time part of the consolidated forces, now in the 2nd Regiment under Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt. The card states that he went to Nine Partners, which at the time was in upper Duchess County. There is possibly a clue as to where his family was, given that he was just 19, he was probably going to see his family. A search has begun to find his family in Duchess county.
On May 25, 1780, after a severe winter, General Washington faced a serious threat of mutiny at his winter camp in Morristown. Two Continental regiments conducted an armed march through the camp and demanded immediate payment of salary (overdue by 5 months) and full rations. Troops from Pennsylvania put down the rebellion. Two leaders of the protest were then hanged.
Just six days before this event, Stephen Wheeler’s enlistment was over. His last muster card does not reveal the exact date that he left military service, but we can conclude that it was on or around May 19, 1780. There was much more war to fight, and win but it was going to be up to some other young patriot to fill his shoes, or the lack of them. Stephen was going home.
The war dragged on until April 11, 1783, when Congress officially declared an end to the Revolutionary War, though the final battle had been fought on November 10, 1782, when the Americans retaliated against Loyalist and Indian forces by attacking a Shawnee Indian village in the Ohio territory. England had officially declared an end to hostilities on February 4, 1783. One June 12, 1783, the main part of the Continental Army disbanded. everyone On November 2, 1783, George Washington delivered his farewell address to his army. The next day, remaining troops were discharged. Now everyone was going home.
On December 23, 1783, following a triumphant journey from New York to Annapolis, George Washington, victorious commander in chief of the American Revolutionary Army, appeared before Congress and voluntarily resigned his commission, an event unprecedented in history. But he was destined to go down in history as our first President of the United States, taking office on April 30 1789. He served until 1797, when he and Martha bid farewell once again and returned to Mount Vernon in Virginia. He died in 1799 and Martha in 1802.
Back His Life
After returning home from the war, Stephen fell back into obscurity. In 1797, he has his first child, Harvey Wakefield Wheeler, but we don’t know who the mother is. Our ancestor, Stephen Van Rensselaer Wheeler was born in 1818, but we don’t know who his mother is either. Rumors have swirled about his birth, some saying that he was the son of the patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer, who after an affair, paid Stephen to marry the girl, leave the state and raise the child as his own. The sum was $30,000. However, in 1820 Stephen applied for a pension, citing weakness, infirmity and poverty and in need of the “bounty of his country”, having no other way to support his family, which at that time consisted of a wife, Roxanna Bishop and one child, three years old. The child should have been recorded at being three months old. Zopher Wheeler was born on June 12, 1820. This places into question where Stephen Van Rensselaer Wheeler was, as he was only two years old at the time. We could speculate, but that is best left for another day. Needless to say, it doesn’t seem likely that Stephen had received $30,000 and two years later was destitute, with belongings only appraised at $37.29. He lived in Canaan, New York at the time of the application for his pension, which he was granted. He was paid $8.00 a month, until his death on March 18, 1831 at the age of 70 years, six months and four days. He finished out his life in Stephentown, New York, as a farmer. He is buried in Goodrich Hollow Cemetery, 2nd row, on the left. His epitaph reads:
Farewell my friends both great and dear
I must appear for Jesus’ call
My flesh shall moulder in the clay
Until the General Judgement Day!”
His widow, Roxanna Bishop, daughter of Moses Bishop, outlived him by 15 years, dying on February 8, 1846, in her 60th year.
Stephen left four children, the oldest age 34, the youngest 9 years old. He also left a lot of mysteries, for us to unravel. I for one will never look at the Revolutionary War again without thinking of how it personally affected my family. If Stephen had died in that army hospital or during the Indian fighting, none of us would be here. It kind of brings things into perspective, doesn’t it? The events of over two hundred years ago have a profound effect on our lives today. America’s history is our personal history. Our ancestor’s brush with death and greatness made it possible for all of us to carry on the family name. Be proud of Stephen and all of the young men like him. If not for them, where would this country be today? He may not have become a rich man, but he certainly deserves our remembrance of him as a hero. His patriotism is to be honored. He sacrificed his youth to fight for a cause that he probably didn’t quite understand. That is what a hero is. Heroes give up something of themselves for the better good. He certainly did that and much more.
Note: Stephen’s son Zopher, was killed in Virginia during the Battle of Cold Harbor during the Civil War.
Stephen Wheeler’s signature as found on his pension application.