Sergeant Simon Giffin and his journal of the Revolution

Page 136 of the diary of Simon Giffin, 1777-1779. Photo by author.

In the early morning of May 30, 1777, my distant grandfather Sgt. Simon Giffin of Wethersfield, Connecticut left his home and followed the dirt trail over Rocky Hill and down to the Village Green. After three months of training and recruiting he had been called to muster with his regiment, the 9th Connecticut commanded by Col. Samuel Blachley Webb. We know a great deal about Sergeant Giffin. He was a writer of letters and diaries and several of his descendants have been obsessed with genealogy. One extraordinary descendant has provided us with an accounting of some 8,000 of his descendants; another has preserved and kept together Simon’s possessions from the war, including a war diary, regimental record book, musket, sword, powder horns, and uniform buttons. [1]

What could we learn from reading this man’s notebooks and researching his regiment, his fellow soldiers, his hometown, and their war? He was in many respects an ordinary man, if any senior NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) can ever be considered “ordinary.” Most officers would probably consider them the “backbone of the Army,” the men most responsible for accomplishing a unit’s daily mission. Among the hundreds of surviving soldier diaries from the Revolution, not many have been written by senior NCO’s; one study found only some twenty-nine of 876 diaries were written by sergeants.[2] Another in-depth study of American diaries from the Seven Years War indicates that some two-thirds of the surviving diaries from that war focused on the mundane details of camp life, only a third commented reflectively on their military life.[3]

As a senior NCO, Giffin focused almost exclusively on the daily status and activities of his regiment; he did not spend time or ink reflecting on the scenery, the miseries of the weather or the march, his inadequate diet, clothing, shoes, pay, and food. He never questions his orders, the motivations of his superiors, the men around him, or the enemy. His unit, the 9th Connecticut Regiment, participated in some well-known campaigns and a great many smaller actions, the sum total of which illustrate the difficulties and dangers faced by men fighting the most powerful military machine of its day. And, in all honesty, what great, great grandson could possibly pass up an opportunity to read and research a first-hand account of a grand-father’s experiences in the Revolutionary War?

We know from war records that this was Giffin’s second stint in the war. In 1775 he had served for six days as a private in Wethersfield Militia during the Lexington Alarm. [4]  His fellow townsmen were early and ardent supporters of the rebellion, having long resisted English taxation and having contributed an over-strength company for the siege of Boston. After six days in Boston the excess men, including Private Giffin, were sent home to care for their young families. Giffin then sat out the war for two years, watching as the British withdrew from Boston in 1776 and then returned to drive Washington’s Army out of New York City, across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania. Why had he waited until 1777, the worst possible moment, and then suddenly reenlisted in the military? Also, why the sudden promotion from private to company sergeant (in Capt. Caleb Bull’s Company)?

Simon Giffin was undoubtedly an ardent supporter of the war. He was a second generation immigrant from the Ulster provinces of North Ireland. His father was one of some 250,000 “Scots-Irish” who migrated to North America in the six decades before the war.[5] The Ulster Scots firmly supported the rebellion, many contemporary observers noting that they were “the foremost, most irreconcilable, and most determined in pushing the quarrel with England to the extremity.” Recent studies indicate that one in every four Continental Army soldiers was of Irish ancestry and the vast majority of those were from the Protestant Ulster counties of Northern Ireland.[6] In some units, such as the Pennsylvania Line Regiments, the Scots and Scots-Irish accounted for almost half of the total manpower.

In the spring of 1777 Simon Giffin was an older man, at age thirty-six almost two decades older than many new enlistees. One study confirms that their median age of privates beginning in 1777 was twenty years and as many as five percent were younger than sixteen.[7] From his writings and public records we know that by 1777 Giffin was a mature man, an independent-minded, serious, focused, literate, hard-working, tax-paying yeoman with a family, property, and an established business; the perfect candidate for the position of a senior non-commissioned officer in an army that was still struggling to get organized.

As a young man Giffin had travelled widely, having lived in Boston, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Hardwick, Massachusetts, before moving to Wethersfield. His mother died when he was eleven and he was sent from the wilds of Nova Scotia to Wooster County, Massachusetts to live and work as an apprentice with a master maker of spinning wheels. A decade later (1761) he married a local Hardwick girl, Abigail Higgins. [8]  Over the next six years Abigail provided Simon with three boys (Edward, James, and David Doane). Their marriage then dissolved in a “Great Awakening” divorce circa 1767/68. Abigail took her three boys and left Simon and Hardwick, moving to Bennington, Vermont with her parents where they would help build a “New Light” Church in the wilderness. Simon must have been devastated by the loss of his family, but he would remain steadfast in his Congregational faith.

Soon after his separation Simon left Hardwick for Wethersfield, Connecticut, a bustling community of well-established farms, successful merchants, and traders with a thriving port on the Connecticut River.[9] Trading vessels regularly sailed upriver to the quiet Wethersfield Cove to drop off imports and to load local forest and farm products for export.   Enterprising merchants offered a full range of services for ocean-going vessels including ship repairs, careening (removing seaweed and barnacles), refitting, and provisioning ships. The more successful entrepreneurs began to expand their enterprises to include building and manning merchant ships, and sending out trading ventures of their own. During the Revolution the town would be a bread-basket for the Continental Army, and home port for a number of private warships, privateers.

When Giffin appeared in Wethersfield, he was a mature, twenty-seven-year-old, skilled craftsman, a maker of fine “Dutch” spinning wheels. The spinning of thread and weaving of fabrics was a decidedly feminine, cottage industry and it didn’t take long for a serious, focused, eligible, bachelor and craftsman of spinning wheels to meet all of the marriageable young ladies of the town. Giffin seems to have narrowed his search rather quickly to Lydia Crane, the daughter of an old and highly respected local family. [10]

Simon Giffin married Lydia Crane in Wethersfield on December 12, 1771. Three years later, on March 30, 1777, Sergeant Giffin marched off with a small detachment of recruits to join the army of General Washington at Morristown, New Jersey. At home he left Lydia with their three young children (George, five, Ann, three, and John, three months), and his mother-in-law, also a Lydia. It would be seven months before he saw them again. In his vest pocket he carried a blank diary in which he would never fail to record his experiences for the next 814 days.

His journal of the war is a well scuffed, leather-bound book measuring 4″ X 7″ containing 104 sheets of heavy linen paper covered with neat, tiny writing completely filling the page. The book is bound like a stenographer’s notebook, suitable for slipping into the deep pockets of a soldier’s waistcoat. The binding of cotton netting and glue is barely holding, and the leather cover is worn bare. Whatever title might have been scribbled on it has been scraped away from jostling on long marches and decades of handling by his proud descendants.

Inside, Sergeant Giffin faithfully recorded his daily activities from the day he left home on May 30, 1777 until he ran out of blank pages while camped on the shores of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island on September 21, 1779. As with most diaries of that day, there are several pages of “personal accounts” at the back of the book detailing cash loans and personal items borrowed and returned with other soldiers. Thus he wrote,

September 25, 1777 to Captain Wylllys Company delivered 19 # of soap to be stopped out of their allowance until the rest of the regiment is served equally. Note [no date]: paid up in full.

The pages of his diary are frayed around the edges, smudged with thumb prints, grease spots, and drops of rain or sweat, but they are generally in very readable condition. His handwriting is almost always carefully and clearly executed in the cursive style of the day, called “English Roundhand.”[11] He made no strikeovers, and never eliminated any passages once written.   His entries are almost always legible, when they haven’t been washed away by raindrops, bleached by too much exposure to the sun, or faded by too little lamp black in his hand-made ink. The quality of his script is remarkable considering that he was a soldier writing with a quill pen and a pot of homemade ink while camping under a tree, in tents, or in barns, in the snow, rain, or muggy heat of New England. His clean, neat, and attractive penmanship confirms that our sergeant was a serious, focused man who paid attention to his instructions and took great pride in his work.

The consistency of his reportage is equally remarkable. As a senior non-commissioned officer he was a busy man but he never failed to make a daily entry while marching, camping, drilling, fighting, or building lodgings and fortifications in heat and humidity, snow, rainstorms, floods, fierce Nor’easters, and even a hurricane. On one occasion, July 12, 1778, he noted to his “great shame” that he had spent a full day working without realizing that it was a Sabbath. Perhaps he felt responsible for encouraging the young privates from his home town to attend church services whenever available. However, he never commented on the sermons or the scriptures; and, scanning through his Sabbath entries it is apparent that he spent more Sundays working than attending sermons. In fact he recorded attending services only six times during his three years in the field, and only six times while home on leave.

This is not the diary of Jane Austen. As with most soldier diaries of the day, he wrote in brief, simple sentences, generally omitting his subjects and verbs, and forgoing all punctuation, pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. Each entry records the day’s events, flowing from subject to subject without pause or transition.  Most entries ramble on until they are interrupted by a new date and a new entry. Sometimes his daily notes end with a dashed or solid line, sometimes he ends with variations of “Nothing more remarkable happened.”

Thus an exact transcription of page seventeen reads as follows:

October 16, 1777 this day marched in order to get to Sopas but the enemy got there and sat all the houses afeir before we got there and left the place we marched around to come in upon the back of them to a town called Marbel town lodged there in a barn two prisoners were taken this night —————————————

October 17, 1777 marched to a town called Wooley Town about four miles halted & drawed provisions for 2 days beef and flower no rest went on the Provost Guard we had 33 prisoners this night to guard nothing strange happened ———————————

The ingenious phonetic spellings and curious vocabularies require some thought, an old map, or an ancient dictionary to untangle. With a little research the town of “Sopas” becomes his phonetic translation of “Esopus” the Old Dutch name for the Hudson River community which by 1777 had been renamed Kingston, New York. Modern histories confirm that enemy raiders had sailed up the Hudson River, landed, and set fire (Simon’s “afeir”) to the town and then departed on boats. Webb’s men arrived just as the enemy departed and his regiment was ordered to march south to Hurley, New York (not “Wooley”). At the time the New York State legislature was temporarily meeting in Hurley, having fled Albany fearing the imminent approach of a British invasion army from Canada (General Burgoyne’s army). After the burning of Kingston, everyone assumed that Hurley would be the next logical target for a British attack.

Transcribing Sergeant Giffin’s diary was a two year process; understanding it took considerably longer. With patience and research the full meaning began to emerge. As with all good translations the original text has been modified with modern punctuation, spellings, and interpretations in the hopes that it will be more easily read and understood. At the same time, many of the colloquialisms of the original have been maintained to lend authenticity to the manuscript. Thus, for instance, Giffin regularly reported distributing rations of “flower” to the regiment. It is a nice thought, soldiers with flowers at every meal, but the spelling of course referred to “flour.”

Modern libraries and archives have incorrectly labelled Giffin’s work a “diary” of the Revolution. In truth this is not a record of his personal thoughts; it is a business journal, a daily recording of military details such as the date, place, weather, and activities of his regiment. He seldom provides any descriptions or analysis of the people, places, or events he encountered. His narrative is devoid of criticisms, excuses, complaints, explanations, and emotional comment. There is not a hint of humor in his daily record, nor a single swear word, nor a bitter, angry, or vicious comment in the entire work.

Equally there is never a moment of doubt, hesitancy, questioning, or wavering. This is the journal of a focused, no-nonsense, senior army sergeant. He never muses about the intentions or utility of his orders. His job was to focus the attentions of his men on accomplishing their mission. His notes reveal that he was a busy man; his duties included a diversity of tasks including leading teams of men in combat, on construction projects and camp guard duties, preparing his men for inspections and marches, distributing provisions and ammunition, witnessing punishments (whippings, hanging, etc.), filling in for absent NCOs , and assisting officers as requested. At various times his activities included building and operating a bread bakery, making soap, fishing and clamming, and inventorying local dairy herds.   All of his daily activities are carefully reported in his private journal.

In May of 1778, after a year as a company sergeant, Giffin was appointed to regimental quartermaster sergeant. His narrative journal continued, almost without change, and then, a year later (May 23, 1779) he began to keep a second book, a regimental quartermaster record book, which essentially provides an accountant’s view of the war.[12]   This notebook is all statistics; each page provides neat, hand-written tables recording the daily status of the regiment including the location and number of men present for duty, the number of rations drawn by type (rum, flour, salt beef, fresh beef, pork, fish, rice, soap, candles, carrots, potatoes, etc.). If transported to the modern world, Giffin would immediately understand and appreciate the computerized spread sheets that a modern organization generates.

A modern accountant would be impressed with Giffin’s tabulations but a nutritionist would be appalled. The men in the Continental Army existed on a diet of meat boiled or roasted over an open fire (beef or pork, salted or unsalted), intermittent servings of bread or a flour substitute (wheat, corn, rye flour), a few vegetables in season, and a daily gill of rum (a quarter pint) with many periods of days or weeks missing any or all of the above. For instance, during the last two weeks of January 1778 while camping on the frozen banks of the Hudson River near West Point, Quartermaster-Sergeant Giffin reported drawing daily provisions only five times (on November 15, 16, 20, 21, 22) and not again until February 1.

In 1775 Congress had promised all enlisted men a daily diet of a quart of spruce beer (later modified to a gill of rum), a pound of meat, a pound of bread, and a small quantity of vegetables, vinegar, salt, soap, and candles as available.[13] In his quartermaster’s book Giffin recorded the exact provisions that were provided to the men, but he avoided any analysis or comment on the quantity or quality of that food. From his notes it is clear that he was frequently issuing a “tot” (or gill) of rum, while beer is never mentioned. Further, there were long periods of time when rum was not available. Thus he recorded distributing a gill of rum on June 16, 1778 but not again until the Independence Day celebrations of July 3; and, that winter he issued rum only four times in November (on November 1, 2, 12, & 15) and not again until December 26. Shortages of rum were bitterly resented by the men as their daily dram was more than a simple treat; it was an antidote to freezing weather, a caloric additive to a protein heavy diet, and an anesthetic to the alternating boredom, pain, and trauma of war.[14]

Other items promised each man by Congress but almost never distributed were a daily pint of milk, a quart of beer (spruce or malt), and six ounces of butter, plus a weekly half pint of vinegar, and a pound of soap weekly to be shared by six men. In the fall of 1778 the bread ration began to disappear and the men were living largely on a diet of only meat. While Giffin posted no complaints about the provisions, a great many other soldiers were filling their letters and diaries with grumblings about days of long marches with little or no food, followed by offerings of rancid meat and moldy flour cakes charred over a campfire. In one of the most famous memoirs of the War, Private Joseph Martin wrote about the provisions. [15]

As to provision of victuals … we never received what was allowed us … Oftentimes have I gone one, two, three, and even four days without a morsel, unless the fields and forests might chance to afford enough to prevent absolute starvation … The beef we got in the Army … was not many degrees above carrion; it was much like the old Negro’s rabbit, it had not much fat upon it and but a very little lean …. When we drew flour, which was much of the time we were in the field, or on marches, it was of small value, being half cooked, besides a deal of it being unavoidably wasted in the cookery.

In Giffin’s dietary reports, vegetables and fruits appear only in season and generally in small quantities. The men were frequently issued three to five days of provisions at a time with orders to cook everything immediately as they would be on the march for several days. The shortages and then monotony of a meat diet without bread, flour, salt, vegetables, and rum would eventually become a cause of serious discontent leading to open mutiny in the ranks; these too were recorded in Giffin’s diary. Thus, on the evening of June 19, 1778 while encamped at West Point, New York he reported on a mutiny; unfortunately, as was his custom, he does not speculate on the causes of the disturbance. 

June 19, 1778 Friday …. this evening I heard a great noise of mutiny in the Regiment and by what I could learn all Col. Wyllys’s men and Col. Sherburn’s men was to join and a number of the Artillery with 2 field pieces with them.

But they were stopped by taking away their arms from them. They … now sleep all night for they were obliged to keep large guards and to take all the boats over the river to prevent the men crossing the River.

June 20 Saturday: This morning all the men that they thought had a hand in it was put under guards. There were 8 of our men and several from the other regiments put in the guard house for a trial.

Giffin deployed with the 9th Connecticut Regiment for seven years, witnessing the full carnage of war, participating in skirmishes and battles, reporting horrible wounds, sicknesses, deaths, hangings, and beatings. The regiment marched endless miles through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, some days hiking twenty or thirty miles in stifling sun and humidity, rainstorms, or snowstorms. Colonel Webb’s regiment clashed repeatedly with a formidable enemy in skirmishes and battles in New Jersey (Brunswick and Springfield), New York (Peekskill, Kingston, White Plains, and Setauket), and in Rhode Island (Newport). They lived in fear of British naval cannons and the seventeen-inch, gleaming bayonets of the British regulars. Gradually they become more confident of their skills, as they began to hold their own against a formidable enemy.

A regular part of Giffin’s duties included the witnessing and enforcing of corporal punishments ranging from the humiliation of the pillory to as many as 309 lashes with a whip, and death by firing squad or hanging.   He invariably attended to his orders without comment, but seemed to tire of the incessant harsh punishments. When ordered to attend the hanging of an infamous British spy, Simon succinctly noted in his journal,

August 8, 1777… the Regiment was ordered to attend the execution of Edmund Palmer. He was hanged at about 11 o’clock and left hanging until almost sundown and then was cut down. His friends carried him away in a horse cart. He was a smart looking man and had a family.

The Palmer story was well known at the time.[16] He was a Tory militia officer caught by Col. Webb’s Regiment while spying on the American army at Peekskill. British General Clinton in New York complained that Palmer was following orders and should be treated as an officer and gentleman. Generals Washington and Putnam disagreed. A year earlier American Capt. Nathan Hale had been caught spying on the British and had been summarily hanged. Washington was furious about the hanging and he responded with tit for tat response: “If you hang my officers I will hang yours.” Palmer’s wife travelled to Peekskill, carrying their infant son in her arms, and pleaded with General Putnam to spare her husband’s life but to no avail.   Sergeant Giffin made no ethical, emotional, or moral comment on the proceedings, simply recording the facts as he saw them.

Giffin’s journal includes brief reports of soldiers sharing their rations with starving civilians and of an occasional scoundrel stealing or abusing civilians. As usual, he provides no ethical commentary on such occurrences. Thus on January 20, 1778 while returning to West Point, his squad spent the night as guests of a very poor family. He wrote, “They had 8 children and not one of them a shoe to their feet. They had but one bed to lay in and but one pot to boil their meat in and that we brought for them.” Six months later he wrote about a rash of stealing from civilians. On June 9, 1778 he noted that a Private John Fulton broke into the home of a widow, stealing everything of value. Fulton was court martialed and punished with 100 lashes. Another man, a sergeant, was convicted by a court martial of stealing from a civilian home. On July 16, 1778 the man was “stood before the gallows with a noose over his neck for 15 minutes … and [then given] 100 ‘stripes’ [lashes] and reduced to the ranks.” The next day (July 17) another thief who stole from a widow suffered 100 lashes and his pay was diverted to the widow for the next twelve months.

On many such occasions Giffin began to spin a tale but added only the barest of facts, for instance, at Warren, Rhode Island:

February 4, 1779 Thursday this day there was a noise with the soldiers because they could not get their money.

\February 5, 1779 there were four of them whipped 30 lashes each. 

The mutiny at Rhode Island quickly became inflated into a major issue.   General Sullivan wrote General Washington about “a spirit of mutiny within the troops in Rhode Island.”

March 3 1779some 90 men from the Regiments of SB Webb and Col. Angell gathered with a view of relating their grievances to the officers, imagining I suppose, that their numbers would give them a consequence. But tho’ mistaken in their mode of address, they had not the appearance of violence, and were without force, and readily dispersed. These are the only alarming effects of that spirit of Mutiny.

            Simon posts no complaints in his diary but a careful reading confirms that the Continental Congress was eternally late in paying salaries to the Army.  During the winter of 1778 he noted in his diary that the Army was five months delinquent in paying his wages. He wrote , “December 14, 1778 … I drew my wages for 2 months from the 1st of August to the 1st of October.”

Surely his family in Connecticut was suffering from the delays, though he never tells us what his wife way saying in her frequent letters. Throughout the war prices for necessities such as food, clothing, shoes, and farm-help soared in the booming wartime economy. With so many men gone to war the output of farms and shops fell dramatically while demand for basic commodities and their prices soared as the value (or purchasing power) of army pay in Continental dollars plummeted. By July 1777 the Continental dollar had lost some two-thirds of its face value.[17] Major Huntington of Webb’s Regiment wrote eloquently on the subject to his father, Gen. Jabez Huntington:[18]

December 21, 1778 … not a day passes my head, but some soldier with tears in his eyes hands me a letter to read, a letter from his wife painting forth the distress of his family in such strains as these, “I am without bread and cannot get any, the committee will not supply me. My children will starve, or if they do not, they must freeze, we have no wood, neither can we get any. Pray come home.”

Standing alone, Sergeant Giffin’s record of the American Revolution would never be a blockbuster; there is too little description or analysis of people, places, and events. However, he clearly provides us with an invaluable daily accounting of some 814 days in the life of a Continental Army regiment. Fortunately, there were others in Webb’s regiment, such as Col. Samuel Blachley Webb and Maj. Ebenezer Huntington who were writing about the same events with less regularity but considerably more passion and analysis. Weaving those multiple reports together provides a broader and more colorful tapestry of the times.

Reading an old soldier’s diary such as this should be a penance required of all who enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. Hopefully this enhanced version of a distant grandfather’s journal will provide a better understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices and accomplishments of the Revolutionary War generation.

 

[1] Special thanks to my distant cousin Robert E. Moser III of Vermont, keeper of the artifacts, who supplied me with a 1952 photographic copy of the diary for transcription and publication purposes – the best retirement gift I could ever hope to receive.

See also: The Diary of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin of Col. Samuel B. Webb’s Regiment 1777-1779; Record Book of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin 1779-1783. Originals are with the Mosier family. Microfilm and bound copies of the originals are available at the Connecticut State Library and Archives in Hartford (CSLA). A transcription of the original is available from the author.

[2] Todd White and Charles H. Lesser, Fighters for Independence: A guide to sources of biographical information on soldiers and sailors of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977).

[3] Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts soldiers and society in the Seven Years War (New York: Norton, 1985), 65-66, 196-97.

[4] Sherman W. Adams and Henry R. Stiles, The History of ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut. Vol. I Pt. 1 (New York: Grafton Press, 1904), 415-21, available at Archive.org.

[5] James G. Leyburn, The Scotch-Irish: A social history (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 157, 305-308.

[6] Michael Stephenson, Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence was fought (New York: Harper, 2007), 29-30.

[7] John Ferling, Almost a miracle: The American victory in the War of Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 197. This particular study focused on enlistees from the State of Virginia.

[8] Lucius R. Paige, History of Hardwick Massachusetts (Boston: Houghton, 1883), 221-29, 382-83, 227-29, available at Archive.org.

[9] Adams and Stiles, The History of ancient Wethersfield, 497-536.

[10]Ellery Bicknell Crane, Genealogy of the Crane Family: Vol. II Descendants of Benjamin Crane of Wethersfield, CT (Worcester: Hamilton, 1900), 11,12,15, 27-28, 36, 55, available at Archive.org.

[11] Arthur S. Lefkowitz, George Washington’s indispensable men: the 32 Aides-de-Camp who helped win American independence (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2003), 8-13 and 316n32.

[12] Record Book of Quartermaster Sergeant Simon Giffin.

[13] Erna Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army. Special studies series of the Center of Military History (Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1981), 189-90.

[14] Anderson, People’s Army, 82, 87.

[15] Joseph Plumb Martin, A Narrative of a Revolutionary War Soldier: Some of the adventures, dangers, and sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin (New York: Penguin, 2001), 245–46.

[16] Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies (New York: Bantam, 2006), 53-54. See also Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb. Volume 1. (New York: Wickersham, 1893), 247, 254.

[17] Richard B. Buell, Dear liberty: Connecticut’s mobilization for the Revolutionary War (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1980), 144. See also Risch, Supplying Washington’s Army, 18-19.

[18] Ebenezer Huntington, Letters written by Ebenezer Huntington (New York: Privately published by Charles Frederick Heartman, 1914), 77, available at Archive.org.

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19 Comments

  • Phillip,

    You have done an excellent job in analyzing an important primary source and are to be commended for a wide-ranging analysis of your relative’s time period. You are very fortunate to also have so many other documents to refer to supplementing this diary.

    These kinds of sources, called ego-documents, written in the first person and providing great details of their particular times have recently risen to the forefront of studies of the past by historical archaeologists. They have been deemed so important that they have even received their own nomenclature, called the “Singularization of Historyy” a school of thought advanced by historians in Iceland who are just now discovering the importance of the many diaries prepared by past generations and which had been largely ignored until now. This is, essentially, a subbranch of microhistory that conducts the kinds of in depth analysis that you have done here. I look forward to any additional articles you might add to this interesting one.

    • Gary: Thank you for your note. Frankly I was amazed at how many men from the same regiment and town were writing letters and diaries about their experiences during the Revolution. Col. Webb was a prolific writer; in fact as Washington’s ADC he wrote out much of the General’s communications during the second half of 1776.

      Your thoughts on the “Singularization of history” are interesting, and a new concept for me. I love the old town histories and biographies and the narrative histories of Francis Parkman, Bernard DeVoto, and more recently John Demos, and Rick Atkinson. As a former teacher I found that it is the stories that attract most people to our history. Thanks again for your thoughtful response. Phil Giffin

  • What a wonderful resource! You may be interested to know that Hardwick is in Worcester County, Massachusetts – and still pronounced “Wooster” (Simon Giffen’s spelling?) as in the article.

    • Carrie: thank you for your note on Worcester. Yes, Simon spelled most words phonetically, the way his Scottish burr interpreted them. What a wonderful museum in Hardwick, I found familiar names on the old maps and a large flip glass which makes me want to try one someday (rum, beer, molasses, and a hot poker). Regards, Phil

  • Phillip,
    I read with great interest the excerpt of Sergeant Simon Giffin. My Revolutionary War ancestor, Robert Chandler of Woodstock, Ct. enlisted at almost the same time (April 1777 vs May) and spent 6 years with the Connecticut Continental line. It sounds like the 9th served in many of the same places as Robert’s 2nd Regiment.
    I would like to get a copy of the transcription you mention is available as I (and my son) would love to read the daily account of life as a Connecticut soldier in the Revolution. Please contact me when possible.
    Many Thanks
    Jeff Chandler

    • Doris: Thank you for your kind note. With the generous editing help of my Steamboat Springs Colorado Writer’s Group I hope to keep up the quality. Regards, phil giffin

  • Phillip,

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful work here! I’m a PhD candidate at Lehigh University studying friendship and camaraderie among men in the Continental army, and so I have read other writings like Giffin’s. I was wondering if you might be willing to share a copy of the transcription as well because I am particularly interested in examining further the relationship between enlisted men and NCOs like Giffin.

    Thanks again!
    Rachel Engl

    • Rachel: Thanks for your note, and best wishes on your PhD. My daughter just received hers in Art History, it’s a long process! I fear grandpa Simon’s journal is all business. He never explains, complains, swears, or (I fear) smiles…. It is all business, where they are, what’s happening, what they are eating, status of ammunition, whippings, hangings, etc. When they are not eating or getting paid he says nothing except to report a mutiny. He never records a single conversation with others in the regiment….. I have searched for camaraderie and haven’t found any. The Regiment came largely from Wethersfield, CT and they all knew each other well but Simon never talks about anyone, except to say someone got shot in the hand or foot or died…. I believe he was serious, focused, efficient, and appreciated…. a quintessential senior NCO but there isn’t a hint of camaraderie in his writing.

      Have you seen the compendium: J. Todd White “Fighters for Independence” listing of some 876 first hand accounts of the Revolution? I spent a lot of time with that little book. Best of luck and regards, Phil Giffin

      • Phil,

        Thanks for your response and your encouragement! From what I have read, Simon’s journal then would seem to be similar to most others for its lack of introspection. I was hoping it might be otherwise but suspected that it would likely follow the pattern of writings from other NCOs and enlisted men.

        I have seen White’s “Fighters for Independence,” which is such a great resource! Thank you for reminding me of it again!

        Best,
        Rachel

  • Thanks for your note. Yes, I see your ancestor in the regimental rolls (Col. Charles Webb – a distant relative of Sam Webb). He enlisted in March 1777 at the same time as Simon. You can find a brief history of his regiment in …

    Henry P. Johnston. The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service during the
    War of the Revolution 1775-1783. Available online at Archive.org.
    https://ia802508.us.archive.org/16/items/recordofserviceo00john/recordofserviceo00john.pdf

    p. 157 unit history 2nd CT RGT Col. Charles Webb
    p. 161 unit roll incl. Robert Chandler enlisted 1777 for three years discharged April 25, 1780.

    My grandfather’s Diary has not been published as yet …. A Photocopy of the original diary is available at the CT State Library and Archive in Hartford. For published diaries I suggest: Thomas Fleming “A narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier” (in paperback). Or, “Diary of a common soldier in the Am. Rev. 1775-1783: the journal of Jeremiah Greenman” (in paperback). Or, “A British soldier’s story: Roger Lamb’s narrative of the AM. Rev. by Don Hagist (in paperback and a fascinating look from the other side). Best regards, Phil

  • This article achieved a high level of interest by cleverly treating the matter-of-fact nature of the journal’s contents as a reflection of the character of Sgt. Giffin and by placing the journal in its historical context. It deepened my appreciation of how important reliable NCOs are to an army’s military success.

    • Sterling: Thank you…. I was indeed reflecting on the character of the man as an army senior NCO. Fortunately, I had three other admirable role models in mind, all senior NCOs whose calm leadership, focus, expertise, and generous support of a novice lieutenant (me) was astounding. I recognized them again recently in the pages of Ernie Pyle’s magnificent accounting of WW II, Brave Men. He wrote (p. 84) … “the backbone of any Army company is the first sergeant.”

  • Thanks Phil
    I will look up the references you cite, please let us know when your ancestor’s diary is published! FYI Robert Chandler took a sabbatical of some sort after his first 3 years were up then reenlisted for 3 more years, finally getting a medical discharge signed by General Knox in 1783 – he made it a lot longer than I could have for sure!
    Jeff Chandler

  • When one reflects on the ravages of war in any age we are struck by the similarities of deprivation and hard ship, extreme fatigue, hunger, the extreme physical environments, separation from loved ones and the abandonment of family experienced by so many soldiers over the centuries fighting in the defense of national or political interests. While the differences lie primarily in the advancements of technology the personal sacrifices of the soldiers on the ground have much in common from the American Revolutionary war as portrayed in Giffin’s Journal to Afghanistan.

  • Phillip, this is a most engaging essay on various levels, many of which are exemplified by the above readers’ perceptive comments on the writing’s various aspects. But I am very intrigued by Mr. Shattuck’s remarks regarding where your writing about Simon fits in with historical theory. He correctly, I think, puts you right in the center of the Macro/Micro History dialogue which is currently ongoing among historians. And from my perspective, that is an excellent place to be, as you continue with your writings on your Revolutionary War grandfather.

    You do justice to both extremes, here, by setting forth an excellent and extremely eloquent context for Simon and his diaries, specifically mentioning his religious and political affiliations. You give some general ideas about his genealogy, but then go into the fact that Simon wasn’t just another Scots-Irish descendent but an Ulsterman who was a hardworking maker of spinning wheels. And he was literate, enjoyed writing letters and kept meticulous journals and accounts while carrying out his enormous workload as an NCO/Quartermaster. OK. This is the Macro, with some movement into detail. And so well articulated.

    But then you get into the Micro, and begin to really “explicate” Simon’s writings, not just giving (presenting) the text of his journal or his account book, but extracting from it a number of salient ideas regarding the minutae of his daily life while at war. That is, you really bear down at various points and give the reader an idea what this man had to do, specifically, to keep his men fed, clothed, engaged and focused on the war at hand, as well as reminding them that it is their duty to serve the army or be punished. Here, your analysis stays within the text, and helps us understand what it, alone, means without wandering outside of your focus. You drill down and get to the bare bones of the prose, as though you were–in a way–analyzing a literary document or a poem. I imagine, to go back to Mr. Shattuck’s remarks, that this is singularization at its best.

    Now, I must make a point regarding your allusion to Jane Austen by comparing her memoir-type writings (we only have a small number of her letters) to Simon’s diaries. Although the writing style differs, there is still the problem of ellipsis. As we find that there are huge gaps in Simon’s prose remarks, moving from one idea, say about provisions, to another idea about marching several miles before setting up camp, so, too, we have the same kind of confusing and some what frustrating gaps in Jane’s letters. In one paragraph she’ll mention that she has just bought a new ribbon for last year’s hat, while in the same paragraph she’ll speak of the horrible fact that a relative has just given birth to her thirteenth child, and declare that women of her acquaintance are treated as nothing better than breeding cattle. I point this “similarity” out because in both cases the reader is left to define just what this means–in Simon’s and Jane’s writing. In both, the “historian/writer” must present an “explication” of the text to his or her audience. (Incidentally, Austen was a younger contemporary of Simon, a “war-baby,” in fact, born, interestingly enough in 1775!)

    In closing, Phillip, I’m very excited by what you are doing here with the Diary and look forward to more of your excellent presentations on Simon and the Revolutionary War.

  • Leonard: thank you for your thoughtful comments. I knew there was a Jane Austin scholar out there and I would be hearing from him/her. Those who have struggled with soldier diaries of the era have a new appreciation for the prose of Ms. Austin. It is comforting to know there are problems of “ellipsis” in some of her work too. This must be an interesting period for scholars studying the historic developments in English literature. If I was 40 years younger I might get involved.

    Being retired I have not read much on the contemporary debates going on within the field of history. I do appreciate hearing about them; and of course your most complimentary analysis. Being an old school teacher I try to focus on both the accuracy of the history (the macro) while telling an interesting story (the micro). My heroes are historians employing a journalistic style in telling their tales, such as William L. Shirer, Rick Atkinson, and Sandra Gwyn.

    Thank you for a most informative and interesting letter. P Giffin

  • Phil: Thanks for getting back to me. Like you, I love a good story, and that’s why your record and interpretation of Simon’s diary is so appealing. Yes, people like Shirer are extremely fun and interesting to read. And as a “war baby” myself, I am hooked on those diaries and journals of the various people living through WWII. The” Berlin Diary” really puts the reader back in the shoes of a young reporter working in Germany during the war. Your Simon “narrative,” does just that for me, especially with your commentary. Keep up the great work!

    And yes, as with the Revolutionary war letters and diaries, there are ongoing discoveries and vigorous dialogues about Austen’s Letters and their meanings.

  • Phil, I am glad I was exploring e-mails that I have missed last month when our house guests numbers in the 30’s and the office hide a bed was in constant child useage. I love family history, love old diaries and journals and photos. Most of my ancestors came in the 1800’s but my husband’s ancestors were here some before even the Revolutionary War.

    But I do have a collection of letters my dad wrote to his parents and to my mom when he was a Marine in WWII. And my dad wrote a book published in 2008 as the Memoires of an old Stockman at Deseret Livestock Company. My grandchildren are already glad for history as he saw it — during and after WWII.

    All this to say that I hope you are also creating letters and/or diaries and journals for those who will follow you. Your skill as a writer would make others truly enjoy reading.

    I delight in your writing of your many times great grandfather and his diaries. He would be delighted in your writing skill and both the macro and the micro of his personal notes.

    Thank you for sharing in a mode that I could find and benefit from reading. You have made it a very interesting read and I look forward to more.

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