When historians think of Continental generals of the Revolutionary War, many familiar names come to mind. Henry Knox, who rose from a bookseller to the commander of the Continental Army’s artillery. Benedict Arnold, the dynamic battlefield leader whose name has become a synonym for traitor. Daniel Morgan, the “Old Wagoner” that defeated Britain’s best in the Carolinas. Few would remember, after going through mental lists of famous or familiar names, Joseph Frye of Massachusetts, Continental general. Who was he and why is he relatively unknown?
Frye was born in Andover, Massachusetts and spent most of his life in what is now Maine. He was part of the militia fighting against the French and Indians in King George’s War (1744-1748), serving in a Massachusetts regiment in the attack on Louisburg.
Between King George’s War and the French and Indian War, Frye was involved in a possibly apocryphal incident involving unfriendly Indians in the region of Sebago Lake in modern Cumberland County, Maine. Scouting alone, natives chased him toward the lake. Flinging himself from a cliff onto the frozen lake’s surface, he was able to make his escape. The Indians refused to follow him and he hid on an island until they left. Despite the lack of witnesses, locals credit his story and the outcrop he jumped from is called Frye’s Leap and his hiding place is referred to as Frye’s Island.
During the French and Indian War Frye served along the Canadian border with the Massachusetts militia. He took part in the occupation of Acadia and the removal of the Acadians. As a colonel in the Massachusetts militia he was sent to Fort William Henry and took part in the siege and British defeat memorialized in “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper. He barely escaped the “massacre” of prisoners afterwards.
When hostilities ceased, he was granted land in a former Indian village for his service. Frye bought and sold land to improve his grant and served as a local leader. As such, he went to Cambridge to join the forces besieging Boston when armed conflict with the Crown began. Colonial leaders realized his military experience might be valuable and named him a major general in the service of Massachusetts.
When Congress voted to accept the forces around Boston into a Continental Army under George Washington, the officers of each colony became part of the Continental Army or stayed on in their colony’s service. Frye was serving as commander of five companies near Falmouth, recently burned by British raiders. Frye lobbied Congress for a Continental appointment, as evidenced by a letter to John Adams on August 25, 1775:
I have taken leave to Send you Enclos’d herewith, a brief account of the Several Stations in which I have Serv’d my Country in a Military way—as a history of all occurrences and Personal Sufferings in that Service would have been too tedious for your Patience, I presum’d not to trouble you with it.1 Therefore Shall say no more here than that, any Notice you Shall please to take of me on your arival in the Continental Congress, will be gratefully Acknowledged by your Honrs. most Obedient and very Humble Servt.,
Adams, John Hancock and others pushed for Frye to be made a general in the Continental Service. Congress was wrestling with the choices of leaders with Frye and John Armstrong as candidates for brigadier general. John Adams explained his attempts on Frye’s behalf in a letter to Colonel Samuel Osgood, an aide to General Artemas Ward, November 15, 1775:
As Soon as I arrived in Philadelphia, I made it my Business to introduce General Fries Name and Character into Conversation in every private Company where it could be done with Propriety, and to make his long services and Experience known. But I found an Interest making in private Circles in Favour of Coll. Armstrong of Pensilvania, a Gentleman of Character, and Experience in War, a Presbyterian in Religion, whose Name runs high for Piety, Virtue and Valour. What has been done in Congress I must be excused from Saying, but nothing in my Power has been omitted, to promote the Wishes of our Colony or the Honour and Interest of General Frie.
At the beginning of the new year, Congress finally reached a decision, commissioning Frye a brigadier general in the Continental Army with a date of rank January 10, 1776. Armstrong was promoted with a date of rank March 1, 1776. At last, Frye had the rank and status many of his Massachusetts contemporaries believed he rated. He was summoned to Cambridge for a brigade command.
The British evacuated Boston March 17 and the scene of action looked to be moving to New York. The next day, a little over two months since his advancement, Frye sent George Washington the following letter:
Camp in Cambridge March 18th 1776
The ministerial Troops having (yesterday) taken Their departure from Boston will, I presume, occasion the removal of the Continental Army to some distant part of the Continent—And as I find my Self in Such an Infirm State of health as renders me unable to bear the Fatigue of Such March as that Manœvre will require, I cannot think it laudable to continue in the army & Pay of the Continent without being able to merit the Pay by my Service—Therefore take leave to desire I may Resign the Command in the army I have been Honour’d with—And as I am at present unable to Travel, and being one hundred & forty miles from my Family, I take leave also to request, That my Resignation may take place the eleventh Day of April next. I am your Excellencys most obedt humble Servant
With the army about to move from Boston and operate far from his home, Frye seems to be suddenly unable to serve in the field. What happened? Washington wonders in a sometime sarcastic letter to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Reed on April 1 (Artemas Ward had also recently resigned and then rescinded his resignation):
Nothing of Importance has occurr’d—in these parts—since my last—unless it be the Resignation of Generals Ward & Frye, and the re-assumption of the former, or retraction, on Acct, as he says, of its being disagreeable to some of the Officers—who those Officers are I have not heard. I have not enquired—When the Application to Congress & notice of it to me, came to hand, I was disarm’d of Interposition because it was put upon the footing of Duty, or conscience, the General being perswaded, that his health would not allow him to take that share of Duty that his Office required. the Officers to whom the resignation is disagreeable have been able, no doubt, to convince him of his mistake, and that his health will admit him to be alert and Active—I shall leave him till he can determine Yea or nay, to Command in this Quarter. Genl Frye, that Wonderful Man, has made a most Wonderful hand of it—His appointment took place the 11th of Jany—he desired ten days ago, that his resignation might take place the 11th of April—He has drawn Three hundred and Seventy five Dollars—never done one days dut<y>—scarce been three times out of his Hou<se,> discovered that he was too old, and too infirm for a moving Camp—but remembers that he has been young, active, and very capable of doing what is now out of his power to accomplish; & therefore has left Congress to find out another Man capable of making, if possible, a more brilliant figure than he has done—
Washington further elaborated in a letter to Major General Charles Lee on May 9, 1776:
Brigadier Fry, previous to this, also conceiving that there was nothing entertaining or profitable to an old man to be Marching & counter-marching desired (immediately upon the evacuation of Boston which happen[ed] on the 17th of March) that he might Resign his Commission (In the original letter Washington crossed out at this point “I do not say Command, for he never did a days duty, or was out of his House from the time of his appointment) on the 11th of April:5 the choice of the day became a matter of great speculation, & remain’d profoundly misterious till he exhibited his Acct, when there appeard neither more nor less in it, than the completion of three Kalender Months; the pay of which he receivd without any kind of compunction, although he had never done one tour of duty, or I believe had ever been out of his House from the time he enterd till he quitted Cambridge.
Armstrong served on active duty until after the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and then in the Continental Congress. Oddly enough, Frye never served the Revolutionary cause in any capacity again. He returned to his grant of land, first making sure he received all of his pay from his brief stint as a general, and spent his time energetically working on the expansion of the township called Fryeburg incorporated in 1777. He served in several civil positions in his local community and lived a full life until his death in 1794. Other than his letter to Washington, there are no other sources that tell why Frye decided to resign just when he was given the opportunity he had lobbied for, a chance to show his military skills and abilities in defense of the colonies. It is possible he had truly found himself physically unfit as he was 62 years old. It is certain that few but hard-core Revolutionary War buffs or residents of Fryeburg, Maine, know of Joseph Frye, general in the Continental Army.
 A dated but excellent list is found in a book written specifically for Mt. Vernon. Mary Theresa Leiter, Biographical Sketches of Generals of the Continental Army of the Revolution, (Cambridge, University Press, John Wilson and Son, 1889), lists 88 generals, including brevets. Wikipedia lists 82 names.
 Higgins, Pat, The Maine Story “Joseph Frye: Maine Proprietor & Soldier” http://www.mainestory.info/maine-stories/joseph-frye.html , 2001.
 Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2015).
 Chase, Philander D., ed. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 3, January-March 1776, (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1988), 486-487.
 Chase, Philander D., ed. The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 4, April-June 1776, (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1991), 9-10.
 Ibid., 245-246.
Very nice piece about one of the unknown Continental generals. Thanks. IMO, the best list of the Continental generals is in Rag, Tag, and Bobtail (1952) by Lynn Montross. There are a few minor errors, like Gates holding his commission until 1873, not 1783. Pretty tough for him to do. Seventy-eight men were commissioned general by the Continental Congress, with four of the 78 declining. Additionally, 35 were breveted as brigadier general and 13 of the already brigadiers advanced to major general.
Have you been able to locate a picture of Frye? He’s one of about 16 that I’ve been unable to track down. Thanks again for the information.
Thanks for the additional information. I was unable to find any rendering of Frye. Looking at the generals individually is enjoyable research because of stories like that of Frye.
Great article. Speaking of “General Who”, I grew up in a town that was founded by Gen. Adam Stephen. As a kid, we learned how he was a hero from the revolution, and was a good friend of George Washington. It wasn’t until decades later I learned that they left out the part where he was cashiered for drunkenness and firing on Anthony Wayne’s troops during the battle of Germantown. 🙂