The United States pension and land bounty records furnish us with a multitude of fascinating stories. It is important, however, to weight them against other information, as there is often much more to the real story. Such is the case with Private Zacheus Holmes of Massachusetts; his pension application gives just a tease of his career, while the real story, like so many others of the revolution, is much more complex than what this simple document reveals.
The pension application, prepared in accordance with the congressional act of 1818 for Continental Army veterans, was brief and to the point:
I Zacheus Holmes of Plympton in the County of Plymouth and commonwealth of Massachusetts and a citizen of the united States and now resident therein set forth and declare that I was a soldier in the war of the revolution in the land service on the continental establishment for more than nine months that I am reduced in my circumstances and stand in need of the assistance of my country for support, and do therefore request that I may have a pension granted me agreeably to a law of congress of the 18th of March last, and do also now relinquish all claim to any pension heretofore granted me (if any) by any former law of Congress. That I entered the service in 1777 among those, who were called the first three year’s men, in Capt. Seth Drew’s Company and Col. Bailey’s Regiment, during the first part of the time, and in the latter part of the time in Capt. Judah Alden’s Company and Col. Sproat’s Regiment; it was the same company and Regiment, but they were commanded by different officers. That after the three year’s expired I enlisted again in the same Company for three year’s more and served till the end of the war and was honorably discharged at Newburgh in New York state and had the badge of merit, but I have lost my discharge. My first Captain, Seth Drew, is living and has given me a certificate, which I exhibit.
There is not much detail except for one tantalizing comment, that of being awarded “the badge of merit.” This distinguished award, created by George Washington in 1782, was meant to acknowledge “instances of unusual gallantry, [and] also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” Three are known to have been awarded, to Daniel Bissell, Elijah Churchill and William Brown, all Continental Army sergeants from Connecticut. Was Zacheus Holmes an unrecorded fourth recipient of the reward, and if so, what act of gallantry did he perform?
The end of 1780 was a tough time for the Continental Army outside of New York City. An expected second division of French troops had never arrived, precluding any attack on the British-held city. News from the South was discouraging at best, with the loss of Charleston and the disaster at Camden. Benedict Arnold had deserted to the British, nearly leading to the loss of West Point. And on the 1st of January, 1781, many of those who had enlisted for three years’ service would expect to be discharged. Something bold was needed to raise the morale of the troops and bolster the cause.
Washington called on one his aides-de-camp, Lt. Col. David Humphreys, to engage in a daring military enterprise: kidnapping. Humphreys was to surprise in the night and bring away either the Hessian commanding general, Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Knyphausen, or the British commander in chief himself, Sir Henry Clinton. The preliminary plans were penned shortly before Christmas, 1780:
Memorandum of a Plan, for surprising and bringing off Genl. Knyphausen or the Commanding Officer of the Posts on the north End of York Island, from Morris’s House.
- The Detachment for this Enterprize ought to consist of nearly 100 men to be transported in 10 Whale Boats, but a less number of both may possibly do.
- In order to prevent suspicion of the real object, a Capt. & 50 Oarsmen might be immediately furnished from the Connecticut Line (which does no Garrison or extra fatigue duty) to reinforce the Water Guards; to prevent the surprise, and assist in defending the Post at Dobb’s ferry in case of an attack, four of the lightest Boats, at the Point, to be fitted for this Service.
- With this Detachment, the Guard Boats, and some occasional ones: I would attempt the execution, after the full moon – about Christmas or New Year – choosing a dark stormy night, for the purpose, to elude the guards, and render the success more certain.
- Should the River become impassable with ice, the Enterprize must be postponed ‘till it opens, when the guard Ships will probably be out of the way, but I would not Loose Sight of it. And the preparation of Boats &c under the above pretext, cannot do any injury to the Scheme.
- When the Boats for the expedition are collected at Kings Ferry, or below, and every thing is in readiness – the Ebb Tide must be so improved (as to fall down with it) on the West side of the River, to the landing mearest to Morris’s House – from whence the Party must proceed with the utmost silence & rapidity to execute the design, and make good their retreat, having left a guard to secure the Boats.
- The principal obstacles, that are to be apprehended, will arise from our ignorance of the disposition of the Enemy’s Guards, and the want of good Guides to carry the Party directly to the House, the latter are indispensably necessary and must if possible be provided, without giving any occation for suspicion.
- If there are Ships in the River, the Detachment on its return, must be disembarked at Fort Lee, & marched by land – otherwise the Boats may proceed up the River.
- The success depends so entirely on a total surprise, and consequently, on the most perfect secresy; that the object should not be communicated to a single Person, till the moment the expedition is ripe for execution. As the Plan is Simple, and does not rest on a complication of co-operating circumstances; it is to [be] hoped the prosecution of it, would be attended with the less embarrassment, and that even the want of success would not involve such disagreeable consequences, as might otherwise follow.
After some minor alterations including a reduction to the size of the force, probably due to a lack of boats, Washington secretly sent the following instructions to Humphrys:
To Lieut. Colo. Humphrys
You will take command of such of the Detachment of Water Guards, now on the River, as you may think necessary and with them attempt to surprise & bring off, Genl. Knyphausen from Morris’s House on York Island, or Sir Henry Clinton from Kennedys House in the City; if from the Tide, Weather, & other Circumstances you shall judge the Enterprize to be practicable. In the execution of it, you will be guided by your own discretion, and I have only to suggest, that secrecy, rapidity, & prudence in making good your retreat will be indispensibly necessary to inforce the success.
Given &c 23dDecr.
The expedition failed due to the forces of nature and a broken oar, as explained by one of the participants, Massachusetts soldier Cornelius Haskins:
he was in one of their Whale boats which came down the North river on Christmas Eve they were Examd. by Col. Humphreys, he commd. one[,] Capt. Wells a second, Lieutenant Harte the third, there were one Col., 3 Captains, one Lieutenant, one Ensign, 35 Continental soldiers and two guides[, one] was a Capt. McCannon, who commands a sloop at West Point, the other is Capt. of a Vessel his name he does not know. There were three Axes, two Crow Bars and some port fire on board the Boat the Colo: was in, four men of each boat were to have landed under the Command of the burnt Church, another party was to have landed Lower down under the Command of Lieutenant Harte. They had orders not to fire on any account he is of opinion they intended to take the Commr. in Chief if they had succeeded, the General was to have been put into the Lieutenants Boat which was to Row up the North River, another of the boats was to have pushed across the River and to have made a Light to deceive any Boats that might pursue them in case of any firing upon them they were to retreat to the Boats which were ready to receive them. The Boats drove ashore by the roughness of the wind at two o’Clock in the Morning of the 25th under the Battery by the Brew House they broke one of their Oars and with difficulty cou’d get the boats off, after which they did not attempt to land. Two of the Boats proceded up the Rariton to Brunswick, the other commanded by Wells was drove down beyond the Light House.
Haskins did not give his account in a debriefing to Colonel Humphrys, or any other Continental officer, but rather to a member of the British Adjutant General’s Department tasked with gathering intelligence. Haskins was a deserter, having left “Phillips’s House” in Westchester on January 22, 1781. He had company in the person of Zacheus Holmes, who gave his own interview to the British:
Zacheus Holmes of the 3rd [sic— 2nd] Massachuset Regimt. He was in the same boat with the before mentioned Haskins[;] one of the Guides was a Capt. McCannon the other a Captain McGuire both belonging to small Vessels in the North River. They set out in their whale boats at Naiack at Dusk in the Evening of the 24th arrived at Dobbs’s ferry in an Hour after they stayed there a Short time and rowed down the River. There was very little wind at that time when they got as far as fort Lee the wind began to rise and continued to increase ‘till they were drove ashore under the Brewery. Colo: Humphries came down from West Point to Naiack the day before they came down and brought the two guides with them the other Officers and Soldiers were those belonging to the party at Naiack.
The desertion of Haskins and Holmes, almost a month after the abortive kidnapping attempt, was abetted by an expedition launched on January 22, 1781 by hundreds of New England Continentals against Col. James DeLancey’s Westchester Militia & Refugees at Morrisania. After that action the Continental troops withdrew. The Refugees pursued and took six prisoners at Williams’ Bridge, and another five at North Castle the following morning. They killed a Continental ensign and eleven others, and badly wounded a captain and a dozen others. A British officer noted on January 24, 1781, “Eight Deserters, and Six prisoners were brought in this day from Kingsbridge. The latter were taken by the Refugees.” He continued:
One of the deserters [Haskins] has given a very particular account of the intentions & fate of the Rebel party that came down in boats from West point the [night] of the 25th December last. He says they came expressly with a design to carry off the Commander in Chief from his house … The Commander in Chief does not believe it, but thinks they intended to spike the Guns on Governor’s Island.
Neither Haskins nor Holmes were listed among the prisoners taken by the Refugees. The muster roll of Capt. Adam Bailey’s company of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment listed Holmes as “Deserted Jany. 20th 1781.” Both men were among eight deserters recorded as having come in to the British on January 24. Beside their names was the notation that they had enlisted in the “1st Jersey.” Haskins and Holmes had thrown off their allegiance to the United States. Doing what most other deserters did, they enlisted in a Provincial regiment, Capt. John Taylor’s Company of the 1st Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers.
With their new corps, the former Massachusetts Continentals settled into garrison life on Staten Island. They were issued red coats faced with blue, the uniform of the regiment; they learned the British manual of arms and other procedures, and endured endless tours of guard duty. There was the occasional evening of excitement, as occurred on May 9, 1781:
On Tuesday night the 9th instant, Captain [Baker] Hendricks (a noted rebel) from Elizabeth Town, with another rebel officer, a serjeant, and eleven privates, came on Staten-Island, in order to take off the patrole of the first battalion New-Jersey volunteers, and to plunder the inhabitants; but finding the patrole, commanded by Ensign [Henry L.] Barton, too alert for their purpose, the rebels concealed themselves in a wood a short distance from the house of one Salter, and as soon as they observed the patrole leaving the neighbourhood they immediately surrounded Salter’s house.– The patrole, tho’ at a distance, concluding they saw rebels, turned back, attacked, and soon put them to flight, and notwithstanding their agility two were made prisoners; the serjeant loosing himself was secured by the [Staten Island] militia; and had it not been for the ardour of the troops, which suffered no loss, the whole gang would have been taken. We hear that Hendricks received a slight wound, and that one of his party was killed.
When drilling and fighting got them down, they could gossip about the court martial of their Loyalist commanding officer, Lt. Col. Joseph Barton. It was, as one New Jersey Volunteer captain described it, “a filthy piece of bussiness.” Barton escaped severe punishment but could not easily stay with the corps. He exchanged with Lt. Col. Stephen DeLancey, who became the final commander of the 1st Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers.
In spite of the October 1781 surrender of a British army at Yorktown, Virginia, the war went on. The New Jersey Volunteer battalions commanded by DeLancey and Van Buskirk left Staten Island for good on June 12, 1782, embarking in boats for Paulus Hook, the Bergen County fortification held by the British since September 1776. Here Holmes and Haskins had some excitement when royalty came to visit. On the 4th of July, 1782, His Royal Highness Prince William Henry, along with the new British commander in chief Sir Guy Carleton, visited Paulus Hook and reviewed the New Jersey Volunteers, along with the Waldeck and Anhalt-Zerbst German troops stationed there.
With the hints of peace in the air and no offensive action by the British in New York, discipline began to break down among the troops. Ten days after their big review, a party of the 1st Battalion under Lt. Col. Elisha Lawrence left the fort and apprehended several black soldiers of the Loyal Refugee Volunteers for the murder of a Bergen County Loyalist. At the end of the month, the New Jersey Volunteers received the commander in chief’s thanks for breaking up and securing a horse stealing gang on Bergen Neck. Thomas Johnston, a private in the 1st Battalion, was apprehended by two Refugees attempting to make his way towards New Bridge. He was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to five hundred lashes with a cat o’ nine tails. He escaped punishment by “volunteering,” along with twenty-three other prisoners under similar or worse sentences, for service in Jamaica with the Loyal American Rangers.
Zacheus Holmes’s career as a soldier of King George the Third did not last much longer. The muster roll of Captain Taylor’s company for September 17, 1782 noted that Holmes was “taken prisoner 25 August 1782.” Rebel scouting parties still took off unsuspecting sentries from time to time, even though the British were not conducting offensive actions. Holmes was listed as a prisoner through June 1783, after the final exchanges of prisoners had taken place and all those who could not be accounted for were struck off the rolls. Holmes was not among those who returned and consequently removed from the roster. But was he really taken prisoner?
Much like the British, the Continental Army interviewed deserters, gleaning whatever intelligence could be gathered from them. On August 25, 1782 the following entry was recorded:
Zacheus Holmes, formerly of Col. Sprout’s Regt. made Prisoner at Phillips’s Jany. 1781, and as he says inlisted in Delancey’s Corps, Skinner’s Brigade, with a Design to make his Escape. This Corps is stationed at Paulus Hook. There are also about 450 Germans.
So what was the truth? Holmes told the Americans he had been taken prisoner by the British. As shown above, his regiment’s muster rolls recorded him as a deserter; that could have been an error, except that Holmes professed to British authorities that he had deserted. His claim of having been captured was obviously a ruse to put himself in good light when back among his Continental comrades.
Which brings us back to where we started. What heroic deed did Zacheus Holmes perform to earn the badge of merit? Apparently nothing. There is no record of him after his interview with the Continental officer who took his account in August 1782. Unlike Daniel Bissell, who had earned the badge by serving in the British army as a spy, there is no indication that this Continental soldier who served in King’s George’s Army for nineteen months did so to gather intelligence, or that he ever received an award from George Washington. And, of course, his discharge was conveniently lost.
The explanation lies in terminology. At the same time that the badge of Military Merit was instituted, Washington also authorized “honorary badges of distinction” awarded to men who had served “with bravery, fidelity and good conduct” for at least three years. The badges were in the form of chevrons (“a narrow piece of cloth in an angular form”) applied to coat sleeves, one denoting three years of distinguished service and two denoting six years. Several pension applicants, recalling in 1818 that they had received these badges of distinction almost forty years before, used the phrase “badge of merit” rather than “badge of distinction.” Even though Holmes had served with the British army, he nonetheless had enough Continental service to earn the badge of distinction.
Cornelius Haskins deserted the New Jersey Volunteers on July 31, 1783, in the last few weeks that corps remained at New York. At least he had the decency not to apply for a United States pension.
General orders, August 7, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-09056, accessed July 13, 2018.
“Return of all Rebel Deserters sent to Lieutenant Willington 71st Regiment, between 1st January & 7th August 1781.” Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 169, item 15, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library (CL).
Lawrence was the original commander of the 1st Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers. Taken Prisoner on Staten Island on August 22, 1777, he was seconded the following April. For the remainder of the war he was a close confidant of Brig. Gen. Cortland Skinner and acted in the capacity of a major of brigade to the corps.