On August 18, 1832, a seventy-eight-year-old New Jersey man named Jacob Francis went before Hunterdon County officials and described his military service in the Revolutionary War. His affidavit became the core of his application for a federal government pension available to surviving veterans.
According to Francis, he had joined the Continental Army besieging Boston in the fall of 1775 and served through the following year; he also had several shorter stints with the forces of his home state of New Jersey. In his application Francis told of a passing encounter with Gen. Israel Putnam of Connecticut. That story and the ways in which it was publicly retold over the next century and a half help to reveal how American culture remembered and misremembered the Revolution.
Here is the anecdote Jacob Francis related, broken into paragraphs for easier reading:
I recollect General Putnam more particularly from a circumstance that occurred when the Troops were engaged in throwing up a breastwork at Leachmore’s-point across the river, opposite Boston, between that & Cambridge,
the men were at work digging, about 500 men on the fatigue at once, I was at work among them, they were divided into small squads of 8 or 10 together, & a non commissioned officer to oversee them.
General Putnam came Riding along in uniform as an officer to look at the Work. They had dug up a pretty large stone which lay on the side of the ditch. The General spoke to the corporal who was standing looking at the men at work & said to him “my lad throw that stone up on the middle of the breastwork,”
the Corporal touching his hat with his hand said to the General “Sir I am a Corporal.”
“O.” (said the General) “I ask your pardon sir,” and immediately got off his horse and took up the stone and threw it up on the breastwork himself. & then mounted his horse & rode on, giving directions, &c.
This is a great story. It’s pithy, it has a nice twist with an unspoken moral lesson, and it reveals the general’s character. This story fits with what other sources tell us about Israel Putnam. It shows the physical strength that led him to attack a wolf in her own den. It confirms the lack of pretension that mustermaster general Stephen Moylan captured in late 1775 when he described “old PUT mounted on the large mortar [captured from an enemy ship] … with a bottle of rum in his hand, standing parson to christen” the big-mouthed artillery piece with the name of “Congress.”
As Francis applied for a pension, the value of his story lay in proving how he remembered vivid details of his military service in Massachusetts. He specified that the event happened at Lechmere Point. Indeed, troops under Putnam’s command were busy fortifying that part of eastern Cambridge in late 1775 and early 1776.
Francis didn’t need to tell this story to entertain or impress the bureaucrats who approved Revolutionary War pensions. In fact, if those officials had concluded that the man’s anecdotes were too good to be true, then they might have denied him financial support in his old age. He therefore had little reason to make up a tale like this. Jacob Francis’s pension was approved, and his recollections were filed away in Washington, D.C., with the rest of his paperwork.
Only seven years later, a different version of the same story appeared in American newspapers. The earliest examples I’ve found were in the October 22, 1839, issue of The North American, published in Philadelphia, and the October 23 issue of the Norwich Courier in Connecticut. There was almost certainly an older source that both those newspapers drew from, but neither offered any indication of where. In this period, it was common for printers to pick up material without credit from other newspapers, magazines, or books. As electronic newspaper databases grow larger, an earlier printing will probably surface.
Here is the 1839 version of the anecdote, curious punctuation and all:
THE CORPORAL.—During the American revolution, an officer not habited in the military costume, was passing by where a small company of soldiers were at work, making some repairs upon a small redoubt. The commander of the little squad was giving orders to those who were under him, relative to a stick of timber, which they were endeavouring to raise to the top of the works. The timber went up hard, and on this account the voice of the little great man was often heard in his regular vociferations of “Heave away! There she goes! Heave ho!” etc. The officer before spoken of stopped his horse when arrived at the place, and seeing the timber sometimes scarcely move, asked the commander why he did not take hold and render a little aid. The latter appeared to be somewhat astonished, turning to the officer with the pomp of an Emperor, said, “Sir, I am a corporal![”] ‘You are not though, are you?’ said the officer; ‘I was not aware of it.’ And taking off his hat and bowing, ‘I ask your pardon, Mr. corporal.” Upon this he dismounted his elegant steed, flung the bridle over the post, and lifted till the sweat stood in drops on his forehead. When the timber was elevated to its proper station, turning to the man clothed in brief authority, “Mr. Corporal,” said he, “when you have another such job, and have not men enough, send to your Commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you a second time.” The corporal was thunderstruck! It was Washington.
The core of this story is obviously the same that Jacob Francis had told in 1832, but many details are changed. Most important, the general is now George Washington instead of Israel Putnam. The task the soldiers are struggling with is different: lifting a log instead of a boulder. The specific place and time have disappeared entirely, rendering the tale difficult to confirm and impossible to refute. The general has more to say to the corporal, and the narrator more to say to readers, turning a subtle anecdote into a ham-handed moral lesson. Yet the lines “Sir, I am a corporal!” and “I beg/ask your pardon, sir” appear in both Francis’s anecdote and in the newspaper version, strongly suggesting that they shared a common source—either an earlier telling of the tale or an actual event.
Washington was of course a more celebrated general than Putnam, and the attractive force of celebrity probably altered the anecdote to be about him. However, the behavior it describes does not fit the commander-in-chief. Washington was physically powerful like Putnam, but he strongly emphasized hierarchy, discipline, and proper military appearance. He valued the distinction between officers and ordinary soldiers. He would not have labored alongside enlisted men, no matter if Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century liked to imagine him doing so.
Many other American newspapers reprinted that tall tale about Washington and the corporal into the 1840s. The Rural Repository magazine ran the story in 1850, and it continued to pop up in publications through the end of the century. At some point Henry Alexander Ogden illustrated it for a magazine or textbook, as shown above. Today, blogs retell the tale of General Washington surprising the self-important corporal.
That wasn’t the only version of the story passed along in nineteenth-century America, however. Another finally saw print in 1883 in Alexander M. Gow’s book The Primer of Politeness. In this variation, the conglomerations of quotation marks testify to how the author wanted to assure readers that he was directly quoting from a reliable source:
Washington at Dorchester.
An anecdote of Washington, told by the Rev. Simeon Locke, who died in 1831, aged eighty-three years, is thus related. Mr. Locke, who was a respected clergyman of Hollis, Maine, was a frequent visitor, about fifty years ago, at a friend’s house in Kennebunkport. “When I was a boy,” writes Mr. Andrew Walker, the narrator, “I have heard him more than once relate the following anecdote, and I recollect it as distinctly as if told yesterday. He said,—
I was a soldier in the army of the Revolution, and was detailed, with others, to build the breastworks on Dorchester Heights. A day or two after the works were begun, General Washington rode into the enclosure. I was a sentinel. Near me was a wheelbarrow and shovel; not far off was an idle soldier.
Why do you not work with the others?” asked Washington, addressing the soldier.
I am a corporal, sir,” he replied.
The general immediately dismounted, and marched to the barrow, shovelled it full of sand, wheeled it to the breastworks, dumped his load, and returned the empty barrow to its place. Without uttering a word, he mounted his horse and rode away.’”
False pride he despised, and he was always ready to rebuke it.
Again we have General Washington doing physical work that the corporal doesn’t deign to do—but now that work is moving sand with a wheelbarrow. Again, we have the line, “I am a corporal, sir.” And again, the story comes with an overt moral lesson.
Some details of this story check out. The Rev. Simon Locke—sometimes called Simeon—was indeed a minister in Hollis, Maine. He died on September 6, 1831, though he was actually only seventy-eight years old at the time (reported as seventy-nine, but a few days short of that age).
Locke had indeed been a Revolutionary War soldier. We have no account of his service in his own words, but his widow Lydia filed for a pension after his death, and that application preserves stories that she and her neighbors had heard him tell. Cutting through the haze of secondhand accounts, it is clear that Locke served during the siege of Boston for a few months in 1775 and 1776. His second stint was in a New Hampshire militia company led by Capt. John Drew, which was raised to bolster the Continental forces in December 1775. Though those militia troops were called “six weeks’ men,” many stayed to the end of the siege in March 1776.
However, no one in those pension records recalled Locke claiming to have helped to build “the breastworks on Dorchester Heights” that March. The New Hampshire men were stationed at Winter Hill on the opposite wing of the American lines. Instead, Locke’s survivors said he was in the first company to take possession of the fort that the British troops left behind on Bunker’s Hill when they evacuated in March 1776. His widow and a man who boarded with them even recalled that Locke had come home with “a china punch bowl & a china plate taken from the British camp.”
Locke thus served closer to the area overseen by General Putnam than he would have if he were part of the Continental contingent that fortified Dorchester heights. That makes it plausible that he brought home the same story about Putnam as Jacob Francis and retold it as an old man in Maine. Andrew Walker could indeed have heard that story from Locke as a boy and decades later remembered it (perhaps under the influence of the widely published version) as involving a more famous general and a more famous fortification.
The apparently independent transmission in New Jersey and Maine of the story about a corporal and a general during the siege of Boston suggests that the incident really did happen. Francis claimed to have seen the event himself. The boy who heard Locke’s version came away believing that minister had seen it as well. Both veterans probably shared the story multiple times, both privately and at celebrations of the American Revolution.
It seems likely that such oral recountings inspired the version of the tale published in 1839. But that version was “improved” with the general recast as Washington, new dialogue added, and details that tied the incident to the siege of Boston stripped away. Identifying the first appearance of that version might indicate whether the writer might have heard the tale from Jacob Francis, Simon Locke, or another veteran. But even without that original context it’s clear that writer wasn’t so interested in preserving exact historical details as in giving nineteenth-century Americans an entertaining and instructional tale.
The 1839 version erased Putnam, the less famous general. It also erased Francis, Locke, and the other individual soldiers on the scene. (Though Francis was African-American, there are no black soldiers in Ogden’s picture, just as there were none in most visual depictions of Washington’s army made in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.) Ultimately that publication actually made the incident itself seem more dubious. When we view that 1839 version with any knowledge of Washington’s orders and even a small dose of healthy skepticism, it looks like nothing more than an entertaining legend. In effect, the fictionalized version overwrote the actual incident.
In 1980 John C. Dann of the William L. Clements Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan, published a collection of autobiographies and recollections from the Revolutionary War pension files. That book, The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, included a transcript of Jacob Francis’s recollections alongside other soldiers, bringing his story of General Putnam and the corporal into print for the first time. Since then, that anecdote has been reprinted in many histories—the story is hard to resist, especially now that it comes with documentation from a first-hand source. That publication has thus not only resurrected Francis from obscurity, but it also gave us back the oldest, most reliable version of a delightful anecdote.
 In the database of Revolutionary War pensions available through Fold3.com, Jacob Francis’s application is filed under Massachusetts because he first enlisted in that state, even though he was born, later served, and settled in New Jersey. For this article Francis’s anecdote about Putnam was transcribed directly from his application, not from the published version.
 Putnam’s encounter with the wolf was well known during the Revolution and earned grudging respect even from the Loyalist Peter Oliver. Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View, Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, editors (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1961), 122-3.
 Stephen Moylan to Joseph Reed, December 5, 1775, as printed in William B. Reed, The Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1847), 1:133.
 Examples of the wide range of publications that reprinted or retold the 1839 story include the Cyclopaedia of Moral and Religious Anecdotes (1853); A Nation’s Manhood; or, Stories of Washington and the American War of Independence, by the British author Mrs. E. Burrows (1861); Encyclopedia of Wit and Wisdom, compiled by Henry Hupfeld (1897); Modern Eloquence, edited by Thomas B. Reed (1900); Modern English: A Practical English Grammar with Exercises in Composition, by Henry P. Emerson and Ida C. Bender (1909); the November 1917 issue of St. Nicholas; the July 1966 issue of Boys’ Life; the 2000 edition of Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes; and A Story Is Told: Inspiring Stories and Illustrations from “Our Daily Bread,” compiled by Dave Brannon (2010).
 Alexander M. Gow, The Primer of Politeness: A Help to School and Home Government (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1883), 149. This version of the tale about Washington was not reprinted nearly as widely as the earlier one. It did appear, with Locke’s name attached, in the September 1907 issue of The Children’s Friend, a magazine published by the Latter-day Saints church. Notably, the same magazine ran forms of the 1839 anecdote in its issues for February 1908 and December 1918.
 Locke’s obituary appeared in the Eastern Argus newspaper of Portland for September 16, 1831. His birthdate and other vital information are stated in Arthur H. Locke, A History and Genealogy of Captain John Locke (1627-1696) of Portsmouth and Rye, N.H., and His Descendants (Concord, N.H.: Rumford Press, [1916?]), 72-3.
 The Revolutionary War pensions database available through Fold3.com contains files on two different men from New Hampshire named Simon Locke, and correspondence shows federal bureaucrats have sometimes conflated those veterans’ service records. (That mix-up in turn confused the genealogist Arthur H. Locke.) The Rev. Simon Locke died in 1831 and left a widow named Lydia, who collected her pension until 1851. The other Simon Locke, from Seabrook, served later in the war, was still alive in 1832, and had a wife named Mary.
 John C. Dann, The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 392-3.
 Examples of recent authors quoting Jacob Francis’s story about Putnam include Henry Wiencek in An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003); Thomas Ayres in That’s Not in My American History Book (2004); Harry M. Ward in George Washington’s Enforcers: Policing the Continental Army (2006); and the team behind the textbook The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (2008).