Struck by Lightning

Food & Lifestyle

January 26, 2016
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

Since the dawn of humanity, thunder and lightning have both terrified and awed. Protection was sought from deities like Zeus and Thor; and in later ages God and St. Barbara. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment had brought about a new sense of curiosity; reason began to replace superstition. There were experiments with Leyden jars, and new theories on electricity. When Benjamin Franklin “tamed lightning” in 1752 in his famous kite experiment with his son, he became an Enlightenment celebrity and his lightning rod became a best seller. Despite a better understanding of lightning’s power, there was still no method to lessen its damage if a lightning rod failed to work.

The Revolutionary War was an eight year conflict in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians carried metal implements of war: firelocks (muskets), swords, and bayonets. It was therefore inevitable that lightning would be attracted to some of these men. Here are just a few select cases regarding death or injury from lightning during the American Revolution.

In August 1776, the Continental and British armies were facing off in the environs of New York City. The Americans were dispersed throughout Manhattan and Long Island; the British occupied Staten Island and were poised to land a massive force at Gravesend on August 22. The day of the landing was clear and beautiful; the evening before, however, was anything but. Benjamin Trumbull noted in his journal that at about “8 o’clock [came] on a most terrible Storm of Thunder and Lightning. Several Houses in the City were Struck with Lightning … [including] a large House in w[hi]ch a Number of the Connecticut Militia. One man was killed outright and three more much hurt.” It didn’t stop there; in fact the lightning only became more deadly: “Several Boxes of Cartridges took fire by the Lightning … and blew up. Three Officers, one Captain [Abraham Van Wyck], one Liutenant and an Ensign of Colonel MacDougall’s Battalion were killed together in one Tent.”[1] When the British began to land on the 22nd, many Americans saw the devastating weather of the previous evening as a bad omen of the coming campaign. They weren’t wrong.

Over a year later, the energetic Massachusetts delegate to Congress and future President John Adams was named a Minister to the Court of Versailles, and ordered to join Benjamin Franklin at Passy, a Parisian suburb. In February 1778, Adams boarded the Boston, bound for France. Less than a month later, en route, lightning struck the vessel: “a Thunder bolt struck 3 men upon deck and wounded one of them a little by a Score upon his Shoulder.” Lt. William Jennison of the Continental Marines recorded that the poor fellow who had been scorched “lived three days and died raving mad.”[2]

In the late spring of 1779, the British sent a 6,000 man force with a number of vessels up the Hudson River to seize the strategic crossing of King’s Ferry, where they fortified Stony and Verplank Points. One of the larger vessels accompanying the expedition, commanded by Capt. Andrew Sutherland, was the HMS Vulture, a sixteen gun sloop-of-war. Laying in Haverstraw Bay, on June 14, she was struck by lightning: “ very Squally with Thunder, lightning & rain … The lightning struck the … head of the Foretopgall[an]t mast; conveyed itself down the Foretopmast & Foremast to within about 5 feet of the fore Castle Deck, rendered the mast entirely useless & wounded several men.” An unknown officer at Verplank noted in his diary that the “Vulture Sloop pf War … was struck with Lightning … the Foremast & Foretopmast was split in several places & three Men … furling the Sails were much hurt.”[3]

Less than two weeks later, lightning struck again. Capt. Johann Ewald, the famed Jäger officer, also at Verplank, noted that on June 25, “three sailors were struck dead by lightning on a ship [unknown vessel] which lay off Verplanck’s Point,” and that on the following day, “another stroke injured three Hessian Grenadiers of the Lengerke Battalion. The thunderstorms usually come daily and last for about four to five hours.” Also in the vicinity was Capt. John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment of Foot who mentioned the same incident: “a thunder gust in the afternoon, three of the Hessian Grrs hurt with lightning.”[4]

Despite the victory at Yorktown in October 1781, the war was not over and the Continental Army had to be prepared for a renewed campaign. Preparations included maintaining powder magazines, and protecting them from electricity. In June 1782, “the Officers at Kings Ferry express some apprehensions of danger to the magazine from the lightning- The quartermaster will furnish [lightning] rods for the purpose, if it meets with the approbation of the commander in chief.”[5]

After April 1783, there was at long last a cessation of hostilities between the Continental and British armies. The British prepared to evacuate; Washington and Gen. Sir Guy Carleton met in the Hudson River, and all seemed to be going well. Lightning, however, was to claim one more victim. On May 23, 1783, the Massachusetts orator and brother of Mercy Otis Warren, James Otis, Jr., stepped into the doorway of a friend’s home in Andover, Massachusetts for some air during a dinner party when “he was killed … by a [bolt of] lightning in an instant.”[6]

Although lightning casualties did not compare in number to disease and combat casualties during the war years, they were perhaps more shocking and frightening in their abruptness, and therefore more frequently noted in the diaries and journals that chronicle the war.


[1] Benjamin Trumbull, “Journal of the Campaign at New York, 1776-7,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society (, accessed December 23, 2015); General Orders, June 5, 1776, Note 2, National Archives (hereafter, NA).

[2] John Adams Diary, February 21-23, 1778, NA,

[3] Master’s Log, HMS Vulture,June 15, 1779, ADM 52/2073, British National Archives. Though she was struck on the afternoon of June 14, the ship’s log considers it the 15th, as at the time the naval day began at noon on the preceding day; i.e.: naval June 15 was land’s June 14 12:00 Noon to 11:59 AM June 15. Due to the obvious confusion this caused, the Royal Navy abolished this system during the Napoleonic Wars and used local time. Carson I. A. Ritchie, “A New York Diary” in Narratives of the Revolution in New York: A Collection of Articles from The New-York Historical Society Quarterly (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1975), 282.

[4] Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, Joseph P. Tustin, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 1979), 169; John Peebles, John Peebles’ American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier, 1776-1782, Ira D. Gruber, ed. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 272.

[5] Henry Sewall to David Humphreys, July 12, 1782, NA,

[6] John Thaxter to John Adams, August 12, 1783, NA,


  • Michael,

    Not to be a “nit picker,” but in the interests of accuracy, the correct term for the implement used by Ben Franklin to tame lightning is the Layden Jar (or Leiden Jar), not the Lydecker Jar. The following is from Wikipedia, which is a source that I normally view with suspicion, but which in this case presents the information in a number of other sources in a more succinct form.

    A Leyden jar, or Leiden jar, is a device that “stores” static electricity between two electrodes on the inside and outside of a glass jar. A Leyden jar typically consists of a glass jar with metal foil cemented to the inside and the outside surfaces, and a metal terminal projecting vertically through the jar lid to make contact with the inner foil. It was the original form of a capacitor (originally known as a “condenser”).

    It was invented independently by German cleric Ewald Georg von Kleist on 11 October 1745 and by Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek of Leiden (Leyden) in 1745–1746.[1] The invention was named for the city.

    The Leyden jar was used to conduct many early experiments in electricity, and its discovery was of fundamental importance in the study of electrostatics. Previously, researchers had to resort to insulated conductors of large dimensions to store a charge. The Leyden jar provided a much more compact alternative. Leyden jars are still used in education to demonstrate the principles of electrostatics.

    1. Oops! You are correct, i don’t know how that one slipped past me! Editors, can we correct “lydecker” to “leyden”?

  • “Although lightning casualties did not compare in number to disease and combat casualties during the war years, they were perhaps more shocking…”

    Pun intended?

  • Little known fact: it was believed that fire caused by lightning could only be extinguished with milk, not water.

    The church in Groton, Mass. almost burned down because people refused to put water on a fire in its steeple caused by a lightning strike and were running around frantically looking for a source of milk. I was up in it a few years ago looking at the Paul Revere bell still in residence and the charred rafters are still in place. Very cool to see!

    1. That sounds like a Greek myth! I just hope we don’t have to wait for Zeus to get around to doing that again, before we get another president of Washington’s stature.

  • Unfortunately just came across this in my files; it should have been included in the article, but alas, I had forgotten about it! From General Heath’s Memoirs (William Abbott: 1901) page 191 “[July] The 5th [1779] was an excessive hot day, with a thunder shower; the lightning struck in the encampment of Col. [Rufus] Putnam’s regiment, on Constitution Island, by which one man was killed; several received much hurt, and a large number were stunned.” That makes at least 4 killed, minimally 6 wounded from lightning just in late June early July 1779, and only from Constitution Island to Haverstraw Bay ( a stretch of about 12 miles).

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