Rumor or Fact?

(An historian's questionable judgment.)

Was a son of Gen. Wooster slain at the Battle of Ridgefield?

Sometime in mid-1998 I was surfing the web in search of information about General David Wooster. Among the very few things that I found online was

My interest was immediately drawn to the statement that the son of General Wooster was slain at the Battle of Ridgefield on April 27, 1777, while trying to defend his fallen father. This attracted my attention, because nowhere had I read of this before. Furthermore, all the historical references I had ever seen said that the General had only one son, Thomas, born July 30, 1751. It is also clear that Thomas survived the war. He died in 1792 on a voyage to New Orleans. So, what was this all about?

Having grave doubts about the sources of the author of that site, I addressed an email to him. In his reply he assured me that the material was as he had found it in Professor James Kirby Martin's Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered (New York University Press, 1997).

I read Professor Martin's book and there, sure enough, on page 319 I found:

"He [Gen. Wooster] was thrown to the ground, stunned and bleeding; his distraught son tried to assist him up. Enemy troops charged forward and when Wooster's son refused to give quarter, a soldier ran him through with a bayonet, killing him instantly."

Professor Martin had footnoted the paragraph. His footnote contained two references. The first was a letter from Jedediah Huntington to Alexander McDougall dated April 28, 1777. The second was a letter from William Carmichael to Charles W. F. Dumas, written from Paris and dated June 20, 1777.

When I queried Professor Martin as to whether he might possibly have made an error, he replied essentially that "he stood by his research."

Since then I have obtained copies of the Jedediah Huntington letter and of the William Carmichael letter. Transcriptions of them appear at the end of this file. Beyond stating that General Wooster was mortally wounded, the Jedediah Huntington letter does not provide any details. Professor Martin, therefore, based his description of the incident solely upon the contents of Carmichael's letter. Although he embellished it a bit with the bayonet, Professor Martin was perhaps justified in what his book contained in that William Carmichael had written in his letter, "General Wooster's son was killed defending his father's body, having repeatedly refused proffered quarter."

Now the question is: "How much credence should one give to Carmichael's report?" And my answer is that I think not very much. Writing from Paris, his news was, at best, second or third hand. In his first paragraph he acknowledges that his news is being obtained "by the way of England." The narrative that he was getting must have been based upon battlefield reports from the English perspective, hardly reliable, especially since they were being harassed by the Colonials and retreating from the field as the battle took place. If indeed someone was run through by a saber while protecting the body of General Wooster, how were the English troops able to positively identify the man as his son? It is true that Thomas had been acting as his father's aide-de-camp in 1776, and perhaps someone was acting on that knowledge as they spread the story in England and on into France. To me it sounds more like English propaganda to boost their own spirits. I believe that if Wooster did in fact have a son who was killed in such a noble and spectacular fashion, it certainly would have been widely reported on this side of the Atlantic. Wooster was idolized in New England, and the people of Connecticut would never have let such a heroic story die. Furthermore, if the story is true, it means that Wooster had not one, but two sons, and that this other son was hitherto not reported in any documentation—not even a birth record. To me that does not seem creditable.

You will have to make your own decision. I have made mine, and James Kirby Martin has made his. Obviously they are not the same.

The Letters

From the Library of Congress

Jedidiah Huntington to Alexander McDougall.
April 28    Sunset—
Since I wrote your Honor by Express yesterday Afternoon from Ridgfield–I find we have killed of the Enemy in all yesterday's Skirmishes twelve. Thirteen prisoners including some wounded—the Prisoners say many wounded were carried with the British Army—— Genl. Wooster is mortally wounded.——the Enemy marched early this Morning from Ridgfield—I pursued thm & had a Skirmish with thm in the North Part of the Town of Norwalk in which we had none killed—five wounded—what what loss the enemy sustained is uncertain–soon after the Action I fell under the Command of General Arnold & I am Sir
your most hblesrvt,
Jed Huntington
General Wooster fell hero
/his Wound conducted & commanded
the unconnected & undisciplined troops with great
Spirit Zeal & Bravery
[This letter was enclosed by General McDougall in a letter of April 29, 1777, to General Washington.]

From The Deane Papers
Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Years 1886-1890
(5 volumes, New York, 1887-1891)
Volume 2, pages 73-75
Copy obtained October 2, 1999

William Carmichael to Charles W. F. Dumas.
Paris, June 20, 1777.
We have no arrivals since I had the pleasure of writing to you last, nor news but what comes by the way of England. The friends of government magnify, as usual, their advantages. You will now see how impossible it is to guard all our extensive coast from incursions similar to that in Connecticut, yet I believe the reception they met with, and their narrow escape from total destruction, will sicken them of frequent trials of the same nature. The enemy begin, at length, to do justice to the bravery of our countrymen, and own that experienced commanders alone were wanting to have cut off their retreat. On our side we had only 260 continental troops in the action, the rest were militia, hastily assembled. It is very remarkable that hitherto the parts of the country where the King had most friends have most suffered. New York, that loyal city, is half ruined, while Boston, that seat of d----d republicanism, as the courtiers stile it, grows rich by the war. Norfolk, in Virginia, contained more tories than the whole province beside. Norfolk is no more. The Jersies, where Howe boasted his numerous partizens, is now a desolated country. The last towns destroyed by British fury were the only two in the province which dissented from the resolutions of Congress. The visit of their friends has proved fatal. Many of the Americans killed had Howe's protections in their pockets. General Wooster's son was killed defending his father's body, having repeatedly refused proffered quarter. Seven of the country people, shut up in a house from which they greatly annoyed the enemy, were surrounded, offered quarter, but chose rather to perish in the flames than take it. Two fine young fellows, volunteers, of my acquaintance, fell as I wish to fall. Young men of fortune, they acted as private men that day. Arnold, having one horse killed under him before he mounted another, fired his pistols, and then rode off to rally his men to another charge. You may judge what warm work the enemy had by the quantity of cartridge used—sixty rounds—and by the march they made. It will be well to dress up these little circumstances for our good friends of Leyden, and the courier of the Bas-Rhine.

You have a letter, said to be wrote by a Lieut.-Col. Campbell, bitterly complaining of his cruel confinement. It is a forgery. A junto of refugees from various parts of the continent, who meet weekly in Pall-Mall, London, do this dirty work of government to earn the pittance but scantily afforded to each of them. At the head of this junto were Hutchinson, Cooper, Chandler, Vassel, and others who would not be named but for their infamy. They have forged letters lately under the name of Gen. Washington, which the good, silly souls of Europe will swallow as genuine, unless contradicted in different gazettes. In a New-York paper, published under the authority of general Howe, I saw an advertisement offering counterfeit continental currency to any who would apply. This is one way of distressing an enemy which was left to the ingenuity of our enemies to invent. Dr. Franklin mentions that it was badly counterfeited, or they would not have had the generosity to give it away. Mr. D. is not in town. As far as I can learn from America, the enemy have adopted another mode of conduct—they treat their prisoners more hamanely with a view, no doubt, of not exasperating a people too much, whom, if they do not conquer this summer, they mean to be united to in another way than formerly, by withdrawing their claims and acknowledging their independence. Your European friends ought to foresee the probability of this, but they will not. They ought to remember we were forced into independence, and did not seek it; that many only came into the measure from necessity, not from inclination. The death of the present King of England and a change of ministers might deprive France of an opportunity, the most glorious ever afforded her, of rising on the ruins of her rival. She has done enough to excite resentment, and not enough to secure gratitude. But, "surdis loquor." Adieu! my dear sir. We have one thing left to comfort us, which is, if we secure our freedom we shall owe it to ourselves only.
I am, dear sir,
    Yours, most sincerely,
        W. Carmichael.
Mr. Dumas.
The Port Folio, Vol. III., 381, Nov. 26, 1803.

Return to the Wooster and Jennings Genealogy Page

© copyright, all rights reserved
Kenneth Jennings Wooster
27 Abdallah Avenue
Cortland, NY 13045-3302
(607) 753-3558
File created: December 24, 1999
Modified: December 24, 1999; June 16, 2000; November 12, 2000; December 11, 2001; December 18, 2002.