Who was Captain Marsh?

Loyalist Captain Henry Marsh was mortally wounded by an Essex County (NJ) militiaman firing a "Tower hill gun" from across the Second River, New Jersey. (Library of Congress; detail)

Many people involved in the American Revolution played but a short role in the long war. A John Babcock, for example, apparently served as an ensign in Capt. Peter Ruttan’s Company of the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, but was taken prisoner previous to his actually being commissioned, and he never served again. All that is known of him was that he lived in Ramapo, “about 2 Miles from Sydman’s & ab’t ½ Mile from Parkman’s.”[1]

Another officer of the New Jersey Volunteers was Henry Marsh, whose story can be pieced together from a number of disparate documents. The first mention of “Captain Marsh” is in a December 1776 writing by Sgt. Mathew Knaught, who confusingly described Marsh as living at both New Bridge and Ramapo.[2] No such person appears on the existing muster rolls of the New Jersey Volunteers (which commence in November 1777), or on a list of officers of all of that Loyalist regiment’s battalions prepared by Brig. Gen. Cortland Skinner in February 1778. This would indicate that Captain Marsh’s service had come and gone within the first year of the battalion’s history.

One official document provided the first clue that Henry Marsh had indeed served as an officer in the corps. In a “List of Rebel prisoners taken by His Majesty’s 4th Battn. N J V since December 1776” there is an enumeration of the battalion’s officers killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Under the heading of killed appears “Captain Marsh.”[3] This confirms Marsh’s presence in the corps and gives a general sense of what happened to him, and within a one year’s span of time.

Like many who entered the service as officers, Marsh was a married man. His death left his spouse, Elizabeth, a widow and in need of support. It was unfortunate for her that Henry’s death occurred so early in the regiment’s existence that he had not received his commission, the legal document that officially proved his rank and service in the army. It would have entitled Elizabeth to a full year’s pay as well as a pension.[4] She nonetheless sought some compensation for the loss of her husband.

On May 22, 1783, Elizabeth Marsh sent a memorial to the British commander-in-chief in America, Sir Guy Carleton, relaying some important facts on her late husband’s career and fate, stating that her

deceas’d Husband, from an Affection to his king and an earnest desire of restoring his Majesty’s Government in North America, enter’d himself voluntarily, in a Corps raising under the Command of Colonel Buskirk, to which he was appointed Captain Lieutenant in November 1776; in which Station he faithfully discharg’d his Duty untill April following, when he was unfortunately shot thro’ the Body by the Rebels and died of his Wounds immediately after.[5]

The two most important bits of information contained in this statement are his correct rank, captain-lieutenant, and that he was killed in April 1777. Captain-lieutenant was the rank given to the senior lieutenant of a regiment, who was placed in de-facto command of the company nominally commanded by the lieutenant colonel commandant of a corps. Since the lieutenant colonel of a battalion was responsible for all ten companies of his corps, he could not limit himself to the ordinary responsibilities of his own company, leaving his senior lieutenant with the duties normally entrusted to a captain; hence the odd rank of captain-lieutenant. The rank paid the same as any other lieutenant, but was often referred to simply as captain.

The circumstances of his death can also be ascertained based on clues in his wife’s writings. Elizabeth Marsh provided the location of her husband’s death in a later memorial, this one from 1821.  In it she testified that Henry Marsh “was killed by a shot from the Rebels while he was advancing against them at the head of his company at a place called Second River in the then Province of New Jersey.” A soldier present at the skirmish, Private John Kelly, gave this deposition:

. . . that in the Month of March in the year one thousand seven hundred and seventy seven he enlisted as a Soldier in the City of New York in the Provincial Corps called the fourth Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Buskirk, and was placed in the company under the command of Captain Henry Marsh that he the Deponent continued to serve His Majesty under that enlistment during the continuance of the American Rebellion—And the Deponent further saith that the said Captain Henry Marsh was mortally wounded in action with the Enemy at a place called Second River in the then Province of New Jersey and died of his wounds a few days after he was shot, which was within two or three Months after his, the Deponents enlistment as aforesaid—That he the Deponent was at the distance of nearly two miles from the said Captain when he was so wounded and saw him shortly after when he was brought in and observed that the wound was in the groin.[6]

Like most actions of the war, the fight which brought Marsh’s demise was not a major battle. It was instead one of the innumerable small skirmishes that took place in New Jersey, one that had little or no effect on the outcome of the war, but was memorable and perhaps tragic for those who took part. A review of period correspondence revealed no actions that fit the bill, but one miniscule Pennsylvania newspaper account reported: “A party of armed Tories lately made their appearance near Newark, when they were attacked by the militia, who killed a Captain and two privates, and put the rest to flight.”[7]

Regrettably, the article made no mention of the exact date of the action, but it does fit the approximate geographic area where Captain-Lieutenant Marsh was killed. And, like many such actions of the war, it left graphic memories for the relative few involved, as shown by John Kelly’s recollection of the event some forty four years after it happened. The death of an officer was not a daily occurrence, so it proved memorable as well for those who inflicted the fatal wound. A review of hundreds of pension applications of New Jersey militiamen produced not only an account of Marsh’s death, but some remarkable detail, including that the officer’s fall was occasioned by a lucky shot at probably a great distance.

The location of the skirmish, Second River, suggested that the opponents of the New Jersey Volunteers that day were members of the Essex County Militia. This assumption proved to be correct: at least four recalled the incident while applying for their pensions in the 1830s, with varying degrees of accuracy and detail. Josiah Gould was a sixteen year old Essex County Militiaman in 1777; an incident he attributed to January 1781 was almost certainly the death of Captain Lieutenant Marsh in 1777; inaccuracies caused by the effects of age and the passage of time, some fifty seven years since an event, are common in pension applications. Gould was part of a militia guard stationed at “old Garland’s” and commanded by Capt. Abraham Speer. He specifically recalled that he “was present when John Speer killed one Marsh a refugee with his fathers old Tower hill gun (as was called).”[8] “Tower” meant that it was a British military musket made at the Tower armory, and “old” suggested that it was an early pattern, not the newest model musket issued to British troops at the time of the Revolution.

Isaac Pier, a militiaman that Gould specifically mentioned as on duty with him on this occasion, recalled the incident as having taken place in September 1777. Given that it was at Acquackanonk, where a more severe encounter took place at in September, this is understandable confusion, and only a few months off from the actual date. Pier, who had numerous relatives in the 3rd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers and had himself served under the Loyalist Robert Drummond before the latter’s joining the New Jersey Volunteers, recalled that he “was on duty one month under Captn. Abraham Speer on Guard at Belville and Acquackanonk at the time Marsh a refugee was killed by John Speer.”[9]

John N. Riker was another Essex County soldier on guard that day. Like the others, he gave the credit to the same shooter, saying he “Was present when John Speer killed one Marsh a refugee across the Passaic River with his fathers old Tower-hill gun.”[10] This confirmed that not only did John Speer fire the shot that hit Marsh, but that it was taken from across the river, making it all the more memorable. It provided a tale worth remembering and telling; Private Harman Van Riper of the militia wistfully recalled that he and Riker “went home together and on the way talked about John Speer killing Marsh.” The demise of Henry Marsh’s short military career is now known, from the perspective of men on both sides.

As for Elizabeth Marsh, her life got no easier. Upon her husband’s death, Hackensack Loyalist Daniel Isaac Browne, 1st Major in the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers and Henry Marsh’s superior officer, demanded of Marsh’s estate all past debts due to him. There was no home to return to for the widow, as the property had been entirely confiscated and sold, including “a Negro Woman and her two Children.”  Henry Marsh’s Bergen County property was confirmed as confiscated in the final 1787 list of estates sold.[11]  Interestingly, no claim for compensation for her property losses was ever submitted by her, or on her behalf, to the Commissioners for American Claims, the body responsible for paying off Loyalist losses. Such a claim would have been helpful in not only giving further details of Henry’s life but in better determining where their home actually was. Elizabeth and her three children, with thousands of fellow Loyalists, embarked for Nova Scotia in 1783, leaving New Jersey behind forever. She remarried in July 1792 to a retired officer of the King’s American Regiment, Lt. Leonard Reed.  Lieutenant Reed passed away in 1818, leaving Elizabeth once again a widow. She was living at Queensbury, York County, New Brunswick in 1821.

 

[1]Hugh Hastings (ed.) Public Papers of George Clinton (New York: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1899), I: 483–485.

[2]Heath Papers, Volume 2, Folios 337-338, Historical Society of Massachusetts.

[3]Cornwallis Papers, PRO 30/11/2, folio 19, The National Archives, United Kingdom (TNA).

[4]One such widow, Sarah Barnes, received the sum of £ 273.15.0 when her husband, Maj. John Barnes of the 6th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, was mortally wounded on August 22, 1777 on Staten Island. “Account of Extraordinaries, paid pursuant to final warrants granted by His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton . . . between the 1st of July and 30th of September 1778.”  Treasury, Class 64, Volume 109, folios 53-61, TNA. A final list of widows of Provincial Forces, dated November 25, 1783, does not include Elizabeth Marsh. Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 111, Page 435, TNA.

[5]Elizabeth Marsh to Guy Carleton, May 22, 1783,  Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/10108, TNA.

[6]Deposition of John Kelly, c-1821. War Office, Class 42, Volume 62, Item R3, TNA. Kelly belonged to Lt. Col. Abraham Van Buskirk’s Company, so he and Marsh served together. Muster Roll of Lt. Col. Abraham Van Buskirk’s Company, Staten Island, November 1777. RG 8, “C” Series, Volume 1858, folio 47, Library and Archives Canada.

[7]The Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia,) April 17, 1777.

[8]Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S1006, Josiah Gould, New Jersey, National Archives and Records Administration. Hereafter cited as NARA.

[9]Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S1082, Isaac Pier, New Jersey, NARA.

[10]Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S1092, John N. Riker, New Jersey, NARA.

[11]“A list of the names of all those Persons whose property was Confiscated in the Several Counties of the State of New Jersey, for joining the Army of the King of Great Britain &c. as returned to the Auditors Office, previous to the first day of May 1787.” Audit Office, Class 12, Volume 85, folios 43-46, TNA.

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10 Comments

  • I really enjoyed this piece – it was clearly meticulously-researched and tells an intriguing tale about people and events that have been totally forgotten. That members of the Essex County Militia recalled Marsh’s death so long after it happened–57 years!–really speaks to the significance of the event in the minds of these individuals. Great story.

    I’m curious about the four militiamen who recalled the death of Marsh in their pension applications–I noted that they referred to Marsh by name. I wondered how they knew who he was? Were the New Jersey volunteers and the Essex County Militia generally from the same geographic region? Would all of these men have been somewhat familiar with each other by sight as members of the same community? Or would they likely have learned of Marsh’s identity only later through word of mouth? Or something else?

    Thanks!

    • Hi Katie. Glad you enjoyed the article! That is a really good question. One I am not sure I have an answer to. There were certainly many New Jersey Volunteers from Essex County, but primarily serving in a different battalion (the 3rd) and not Marsh’s (the 4th). As you have suggested, I would guess it was probably after the fact, perhaps by people who lived n the other side of the river who were witnesses or who interacted with Marsh’s detachment. Otherwise, it is hard to really say how they knew who it was.

  • Nice article, Todd. One I would have been proud to have written myself. Once again, you have clearly demonstrated the primary source “jigsaw puzzle” research that is required to tell the individual stories of the people who took part on both sides of the war.

    • Thanks Pat, glad you enjoyed the article. The war involved tens of thousands of people on each side. They all had a story. It is gratifying to bring a few of them to light when we can. I think JAR is a wonderful instrument for that.

  • Very interesting! I’m especially interested in your description of a captain-lieutenant: “Since the lieutenant colonel of a battalion was responsible for all ten companies of his corps, he could not limit himself to the ordinary responsibilities of his own company, leaving his senior lieutenant with the duties normally entrusted to a captain; hence the odd rank of captain-lieutenant. The rank paid the same as any other lieutenant, but was often referred to simply as captain.” “His own company”? Could this mean that the captain-lieutenant was in charge of the battalion’s headquarters company, as found in modern-day military organizations? Thanks for a reply.

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