One of our oldest known stories is The Odyssey, in which Odysseus travels from the Siege of Troy on various adventures to reach his long suffering wife and son, who wait for him to return. Recent movies like Cold Mountain, The Patriot, and Free State of Jones show men going great distances to see their loved ones in time of war. The American Revolution offers love letters between John and Abigail Adams, and the visits of Martha Washington to her husband in winter camps. A similar story is that of Alexander Scammell and Abigail Bishop. In fact, we would know nothing of Miss Bishop at all were it not for his surviving letters.
In the summer of 1775, after the battle of Bunker Hill, Alexander Scammell arrived at the Siege of Boston. He had graduated from Harvard College and worked as a school teacher and surveyor, before becoming a law clerk for John Sullivan, who served in the First and Second Continental Congresses. This connection let Scammell get ahead in the Continental Army, winning the rank of major in Col. James Reed’s 3rd New Hampshire Regiment and the post of brigade major in the New Hampshire Brigade.
Sometime that summer or fall, Scammell rode his horse to nearby Medford, Massachusetts. He found the house of John Bishop, a trader who had four acres of pasture, two acres of salt marsh, two horses, one cow, and a slave. Bishop also had a twenty two year old daughter, Abigail. Perhaps Scammell offered to buy hay for army horses; perhaps he told stories of fighting the British. He soon returned just to see Abigail – he returned several times. She sent him letters in camp, and he began to call her “my darling Nabby.” When the British evacuated Boston in 1776, Scammell’s regiment first went to rescue Benedict Arnold’s men in Canada, then marched to New Jersey to fight the Hessians. He wrote to Abigail, “I long for the happy moment when I can press you to my heart. A letter from you would soften the fatigues of war.” He thought a moment, then added, “The fighting part of this campaign will soon be over.”
Scammell went south again and served at the battles of Brooklyn and Trenton. In early 1777, George Washington offered Scammell a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, with money to recruit more men, who would get half a month’s pay when they signed, and half when they showed up in camp. Scammell could buy clothes and tents, and meet his recruits anyplace they chose, as long as he sent Washington a weekly report. The New Hampshire legislature offered to make Scammell a colonel in a state regiment, separate from the Continental Army, with a higher bounty than Washington could give. Scammell accepted the second offer.
The armies went into winter quarters and Scammell had the chance to see Abigail. He rode from New Jersey to Massachusetts, past a hundred farms and over a dozen rivers until he came to her house. He had written to her from the field, and daydreamed of her, and told other soldiers about her. Now he was with her: bragging of the attack on Trenton, and his new promotion to colonel. He wanted to ask her father for permission to marry her, but she did not approve this idea. He returned to her house several times that winter, and she listened to his suit, but she would not marry him as long as he was a soldier.
He returned to New Hampshire and won command of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment. He chose to recruit in Exeter, where there were no houses for troops but many roads leading to neighboring towns. The terms of enlistment were three years, or as long as the war lasted. Few men were willing to sign up under that condition. The legislature allowed Colonel Scammell to enlist men for eight months – with no cash bounty. As snow melted and warm weather approached, more men came to camp. The recruits were warned not to steal from local farmers, but when they did so Scammell wrote out arrest warrants on any scrap of paper he could find.
Scammell wrote once more to Abigail. Time was running out; he had to take his regiment to New York. He knew her reasons for refusal, but he tried again: “Love is a noble, disinterested passion. It overlooks small obstacles, and the purer the passion the greater difficulties it will surmount.” He offered to come to her house for a wedding ceremony anytime. Just say the word. March turned to April, and April turned to May, but word did not come.
Scammell took his New Hampshire troops to Saratoga, where he galloped his horse through the British attacks and witnessed Burgoyne’s surrender. He then led his regiment to Valley Forge. He served as adjutant general, stayed at Washington’s side through the campaign at Monmouth, and arrested Charles Lee at the end of that battle. He spent months filing reports and issuing orders to dozens of regiments, all in the name of the commander in chief, and heard conversations among officers on how the war was progressing, and how long it might last.
Scammell sat at his desk in November 1778, to write another letter to Abigail: so far away, yet still on his mind. Two years earlier he had written her, “I beg you would every opportunity write to me.” In another letter he chided her, “I have not had the happiness of hearing from you since I left Ticonderoga.” The following spring he wrote that Heaven had destined them to be together, and asked her to simply write her name on a piece of paper and send it to him. She had once professed love for him, and could have written him often. She chose not to. Scammell switched from tender pleading, to nervously asking if she had found another man, to boasting he could come home soon – all in the same letter. Even guilt was a ploy, saying he hoped to deserve her “as a reward for all the hardships and fatigues I have undergone in the service of my country.” By the end of the letter, Scammell said that if she did notwrite back to him, it meant she would marry him.
In April 1779 Scammell wrote to her father, asking permission to marry her (although she had not consented) and asked Mr. Bishop not to tell her he had written. Weeks went by with no answer. Scammell could not bring himself to leave Washington’s side, even for the woman he claimed to want more than anything else. In the same month he wrote to Nathaniel Peabody, a member of the New Hampshire legislature: “I am almost tired of quarreling with Great Britain – wish we could reduce them to reason, and a proper sense of their inability. They seem to be determined to die in the last ditch. I fear the war will reduce me to Old Bachelorism.” He noted Pennsylvania and Maryland were offering half pay pensions to officers and widows, and hinted that if other states did so, “it would encourage our officers, who have no wives, to marry, and proceed in obedience to the first command. At present, the young women dread us as the picture of poverty.” The Bishop family’s silence, and month after month of reports and inspections and trials for petty offenses, all wore him down. The war was not coming to an end.
Troop movements and regimental reports kept Scammell busy through 1779, until the army went into winter quarters in Morristown, New Jersey. The soldiers slept in tents while they chopped down trees, cut them into fitted logs, and piled them into huts, each with narrow windows to let in sunlight and fresh air, and each built into a hillside to let rain wash away. Washington was determined to avoid mistakes made at Valley Forge, where men had built huts too quickly, too shabbily. Cold air and snow had swept through holes in the walls. Men had shivered and sneezed for months; hundreds of them died. Scammell wrote to regimental officers that all huts built at Morristown must be the same, in rows carefully measured. He also threatened to pull down any hut not built in “perfect uniformity.”
The army ran short of food, clothes and supplies. A drought had yielded a low harvest that fall; too many soldiers had descended on Morristown at the same time to feed them. Men suffering from frostbite stole planks from local farmers, with tacit permission from their commanders. Washington complained of “men half starved, imperfectly clothed, riotous, robbing the country people.” So many men were willing to steal and profit by it, they were not afraid to get caught. Scammell was still adjutant general, so he asked that men accused of lesser offenses go free, but men accused of serious crimes be tried and executed. He thought this would be a more effective deterrent.
As Scammell saw the shivering men, and sympathized, his mind was elsewhere. He had already asked permission to go home, and Henry Dearborn, who had served as Scammell’s second in command since the battle of Saratoga, had left for New Hampshire in November 1779. Scammell had been in the army four and a half years, and there would be no serious fighting in the coming months, so Washington could not refuse his request. Scammell rode out of camp by December 25. While his horse plodded through drifting snow, Scammell reminisced about his experiences in war. He slept in a different farmer’s house or tavern every night, with a coin or thank you as payment, and found boats across the Hudson, the Housatonic, and the Connecticut Rivers, then rode past frozen lakes and snow covered fields, one after another.
Scammell found the Bishop farm, where his aching eyes saw Abigail for the first time in three years. Whatever conversation took place is unrecorded, but the result is plain. She was still unmarried, but no longer interested. He had been away too long. Scammell got back on his horse and rode south, on the same route through Massachusetts and Connecticut he had taken with such high hopes a few weeks earlier. When he returned to camp, he found Henry Dearborn – who had gotten married during his trip home.
Scammell also heard that Capt. John Laurence of Pennsylvania (who had left the army a few months earlier) was married. One officer had traveled with Scammell and won a wife, and another had quit his post and won a wife, while Scammell had lost his chance. He put on a brave face to Laurence, congratulating him in a letter, then let slip a confession of his own fate: “I hope you completely enjoy those matrimonial pleasures which a single man knoweth nothing of.”
Unlike Odysseus or our recent movie heroes, Scammell did not make it home. He stayed with the Continental Army, presided at the execution of John Andre, the accomplice of Benedict Arnold at West Point, and went south with Washington to the Siege of Yorktown. While scouting the British lines, Scammell was wounded. The British sent him back to the American lines, and the hospital at Williamsburg, where Scammell died. Abigail Bishop married five years later, and had children, but she kept Scammell’s love letters hidden away. They can now be found at the Boston Public Library – a few miles from where he met her.
The standard works on Scammell are William F. Goodwin, “Colonel Alexander Scammell and his Letters, from 1768 to 1781, including his ‘Love Letters’ to Miss Nabby Bishop,” Historical Magazine, VIII, 2nd Ser., 3 (September, 1870), 129 – 143, and Charles Coffin. Lives andServices of Major General John Thomas, Colonel Thomas Knowlton, Colonel Alexander Scammell, Major General Henry Dearborn(New York: Egbert, Hovey and King, 1845), 79 – 102.
Bettye Hobbs Pruitt. The Massachusetts Tax Valuation of 1771(Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978), 171. The original source is Massachusetts Tax List of 1771, Massachusetts Archives Collection, Volumes 132 – 34, Massachusetts State Archives (Bishop lands); Alexander Scammell to Abigail Bishop, June 2, 1776, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park (Darling Nabby); Scammell to Abigail Bishop, October 29, 1776, MS Ch.C.5.12, Mellen Chamberlain Collection, Boston Public Library (I long for the happy moment).
Scammell to Council of Representatives of New Hampshire, March 19, 1777, Gratz Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Exeter); Josiah Bartlett to Selectmen of Kingston, May 1, 1777, (terms of enlistment), and collection of arrest warrants, both in New Hampshire Revolutionary War Collection, Library of Congress.
Scammell to Abigail Bishop, June 2, 1776, Lloyd W. Smith Collection, Morristown National Historical Park (every opportunity); Scammell to Abigail Bishop, October 29, 1776, MS.Ch.C.5.12 (Ticonderoga), March 22, 1777 MS.Ch.C.5.12a, (write her name) and November 2, 1778 MS.Ch.C.5.13, (hope to deserve her), all in Mellen Chamberlain Collection, Boston Public Library.
Scammell to John Bishop, April 13, 1779, Fogg Autograph Collection, Maine Historical Society (proposal); Scammell to Nathaniel Peabody, April 2, 1779, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred C. Berol Collection, Butler Library, Columbia University (tired of quarreling).
Scammell to Anthony Wayne, January 14, 1779, and Wayne to Scammell, January 16, 1779, both in Anthony Wayne Papers, Historical Society of Philadelphia (drought and planks); Washington to William Irvine, January 9, 1780, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress (half starved); Scammell to Stephen Chambers, March 10, 1778, Henry Manuscripts, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (offenses).
Henry Dearborn Journal, November 16, 1779, MssColl 755, New York Historical Society (Dearborn’s departure); Washington, General Orders, December 26, 1779, Series 3g, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress (Scammell’s departure). The parole in camp on December 26 was “New Hampshire;” the countersign was “Scammell.” George Washington, General Orders, December 26, 1779, also in Series 3g, George Washington Papers.
Scammell to John Bishop, July 15, 1780, MS.Ch.C.5.17, Mellen Chamberlain Collection, Boston Public Library (trip to see Abigail); Henry Dearborn Journal, November 16, 1779 – March, 1780 (Dearborn’s journey and marriage, listed all in one entry). General Orders, December 25, 1779, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, document that Scammell left camp. Alexander Scammell Orderly Book, April 11, 1780, New Jersey Historical Society, documents his return.