Henry Champion: An Officer Resigns

Conflict & War

March 28, 2019
by Michael J. F. Sheehan Also by this Author


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Some people are drawn to flame, perhaps just a momentary fascination, but it can get one scolded, especially by the Commander-in-Chief. “I had just finished my letter when a blundering Lieutt . . . without knowing what he did pickd up a Candle & sprinkled [the letter] with grease.” It was excused, however. Lt. Henry Champion, Jr. had just brought news of the taking of two vessels, the Industry and Polly, both out of Nova Scotia. They contained needed supplies of “Hay, live Stock, Poultry, &tc,” welcome supplies, no doubt, on the eve of winter 1775 outside a besieged Boston. Like thousands of others, Champion had been in the greater Boston area for months. Born to Henry and Deborah Champion on March 27, 1751, Henry Jr., the twenty-four-year-old second lieutenant in Well’s Company of the 2nd Connecticut Regiment marched from home in Colchester, Connecticut, to Boston in May 1775. As part of the tens of thousands of soldiers in the American army surrounding British forces under Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, Champion’s unit embedded itself in Roxbury, to the south of Boston.

In mid-June the American forces hurriedly fortified Bunker and Breed’s Hill near the Boston suburb of Charleston. On June 17, the British reacted, launching a three-wave assault to dislodge the Americans in the battle that bore the name “Bunker Hill” after the larger of the two hills. Detachments of 2nd Connecticut served in the action, including Champion, though his location is uncertain and he did not leave any recollections of the action.[1]

The remainder of the Siege of Boston was relatively uneventful for Champion; he no doubt saw or was aware of the arrival of Gen. George Washington as commander-in-chief, outranking those who had previously led the army such as Generals Israel Putnam and Artemis Ward. In late autumn, the army was reorganized- Spencer’s 2nd Connecticut became the 22nd Continental Regiment, led by Spencer’s lieutenant colonel, Samuel Wyllys. In the rearrangement, Champion became 1st lieutenant and the unit’s adjutant, just as the army settled down for it’s first New England winter. By March 1776, the British were forced to evacuate Boston after Col. Henry Knox mounted a number of captured guns on Dorchester Heights, guns that would tear apart Boston if permitted to fire. As the British withdrew to Halifax, it was clear their next objective would be New York. Washington shifted his army from Massachusetts toward the vicinity of New York and its surroundings, including the 22nd Regiment. More than likely for the spring and early summer of 1776, Champion was involved in defense building, before briefly being involved in a rank dispute with one Lieutenant Huntington when a captaincy in the regiment opened up. As neither gentleman could resolve who had more right to the vacancy, Washington had Generals Nathanael Greene and Lord Stirling investigate the claims of both men, ultimately finding for Huntington, whose commission was slightly older. Champion would have to wait his turn.[2]

Champion would have little time to brood, however, as defenses still needed building. On July 19, a little over a week since the Declaration of Independence had been read out to the army, and one week to the day since the HMS Rose and HMS Phoenix ran up the Hudson as far as Peekskill Bay, Champion was mentioned in general orders: “A Detachment of three hundred men, properly officered [to go to] Kingsbridge, to execute such works as shall be laid out for them by the Engineer. Lt. Champion of Col. Wyllys’ Regiment to oversee said works.” Overall, the works did very little. The British landed on Long Island and on August 27, attacked. Again, Champion left no details of his experience in what was the largest land battle of the war to date, but his regiment was among Gen.John Sullivan’s forces near Gowanus Heights. As it turned out, they fought their way back to the fortified Brooklyn Heights as Gen. Sir William Howe rolled up the Americans in a bold flanking maneuver. Champion would have been among the thousands who were miraculously rowed across the East River to the temporary safety of Manhattan island. In the next two months, Champion would have witnessed the British landing at Kip’s Bay, the subsequent fighting at Harlem Heights, and the British invasion of Westchester County. Finally, the Americans attempted to strike back at White Plains. Once more, Champion and his comrades were thrown back—initially to Purdy’s Hill in the rear of Chatterton’s (which saw the brunt of the action on October 28) and thence miles away to the rear of Mt. Misery. Champion’s campaign was quite done; buckling down for the winter, his unit moved into the Hudson Highlands with Gen. William Heath. In the remainder of the campaign, Champion had made captain. By springtime the army would again reorganize, and so he served the remainder of his career in what became Wyllys’s 3rd Connecticut Regiment.[3]

Muster rolls don’t exist for Champion’s regiment for the year 1777. His unit remained in the Highlands area, not going to the main army or aiding General Gates in upstate New York. We have precious few details as to what he did during this time, except for a small reference attached to his pension files. Writing to Secretary of War Lewis Cass in September 1832, Champion claimed that he was “an assistant engineer to Col. La Radieu & Col. Kosciusko successively at West Point & assisted in laying out the first fortification at that place in the winter of 1777.” This is certainly plausible—Col. Louis de la Radiere was one of the first to lay out West Point in the winter of 1777, after Sir Henry Clinton had withdrawn from his brief command of the Hudson. The general orders of July 19, 1776 proved that Champion had some skill in engineering, so there is little reason to doubt he would again be assigned to the task. He was in the area, Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko did in fact succeed de la Radiere, and one of the first works at West Point was, coincidentally or not, Fort Wyllys.[4]

Henry Champion reappears in the historical record in July 1778, as captain of Wyllys’s third company at White Plains not far from where he had been in October 1776. While Champion was concerned with West Point, the main army under Washington had lost Philadelphia, and then spent spring prepping for a new campaign which began in middle June. The British, en route to New York via Sandy Hook, were pursued by the Americans until June 28 when they finally met in the rolling hills around Monmouth Courthouse in New Jersey in one of the largest actions of the war. Afterwards, Washington moved his army to White Plains to await the French Navy (who would not quite show as he wished), as the alliance with the French King had been announced in May. August found Henry Champion on command with the light infantry. Designed to screen an army and strike fast, the light infantry under Gen. Charles Scott (who also led them at Monmouth) crept closer to British lines and harassed and skirmished with the enemy, notably at the battle of Van Cortlandt Wood, where many of the Stockbridge and Wappinger Indians under Daniel Ninham fought the British and Germans (though there is no reason to suspect Champion was present). Champion stayed with the light infantry until his regiment moved into Connecticut. By November, when he rejoined his unit, he had become second captain in charge of the ninth, or light infantry, company of his unit.[5]

Like most Connecticut units, the winter of 1778-1779 was spent in Reading, Connecticut. Champion, however, was permitted a thirty day furlough by Brig. Gen. Samuel Parsons, and undoubtedly spent a happy Christmas with his beloved father, Col. Henry Champion. When he returned to camp, Campion was made brigade major, a task he held until April. Come June 1779, Campion once again found himself in a light infantry detachment, this time under Gen. Anthony Wayne. Here, his men were part of the 3rd Light Infantry Regiment commanded by Col. Return Jonathan Miegs, who had served in the 2nd Connecticut of 1775 with Champion. Lt. Col. Isaac Sherman took one battalion, whilst Champion, as an acting major, took the other. This corps was housed in the ruins of Fort Montgomery, a fort Champion may have witnessed fall in autumn 1777. In the wee hours of July 16, General Wayne ordered his corps to storm the works at Stony Point that had been held by the British for six weeks; the garrison fell in under thirty minutes. After this stunning victory, in which Champion fought in the southern column behind Wayne, climbing up the steep hill in the dark under enemy fire, he remained with the Corps of Light Infantry in their movements from Fort Montgomery to Aquackanock, New Jersey, until he was once more furloughed in December 1779 by Wayne.[6]

It seems, however, that Campion’s furlough was not as peaceful as his previous one had been. His father’s business was about to change his career. “I started a drove of 107 head fat Cattle about the last of March . . . I Could soon furnish any Quantity Called for, but I fear Cash will fail.” Colonel Champion was commissary of purchases for livestock for the Continental Army, dealing in beef, pork, and other livestock on the hoof. All the while his son was serving in the military, the elder Champion was doing his part too. Shortage of food and supply in the Continental Army is well known, but in the Champion’s letters to and from General Washington chronicle one family’s attempt to alleviate the issue, try as they might. On April 24, 1780, Champion, Sr. alerted Washington to a problem in the forwarding of cattle, as an example of just some of the difficulties they faced. After sending cattle on to Fishkill, a major supply hub for the American Army, American Gen. Robert Howe “instead of twenty-five head which I ordered the Drover to leave at Fish kill he had stopt forty Head . . . I find by [the drover] and his [receipts]” that General Howe had “actually stopt [the cattle] contrary to the Drover’s orders from me . . . and treated him . . . very unbecoming a Soldier or Gentleman calling him a damned villain.” Luckily for Champion, Washington was understanding (perhaps since on May 4, eighty cattle arrived to Camp at Morristown) and after “receiving yours of the 18th & 24th April . . . I had . . . written to Genl Howe and pointed out to him the ill consequences attending stopping more Cattle at the North River than were intended for the posts there.” Just two days later, and still a bit sour, Champion, Jr. wrote that in the past two weeks he had sent on “about 110-good cattle most of which I ordered to Head Quarters at Morristown, hope they will be Suffered to reach that place.”[7]

After a few more weeks, Champion, Sr. informed Washington that he was now the state of Connecticut’s “Superintending Commissary,” and that he would continue to “Exert [himself] to the utmost.” The timing was perfect, as the very next day, Washington wrote that the army was in a “situation of extremity for want of meat . . . this distress produced a mutiny last night in the Connecticut Line.” Evidently, the supply issue was reaching a critical point that would require the full attention of the commissaries, which in part explains the letter Henry Champion, Jr. sent on June 25, 1780. To the officer commanding his regiment, in case Col Wyllys was not in camp, he wrote, “Inclosed I send you my commission as Captain in the Continental Army.” It seems his involvement in helping his father had greatly advanced: “my situation and business is such at present that it is exceeding inconvenient for me to be in Camp myself.” Although he had an extensive furlough from General Wayne, Champion would have sent his resignation earlier had “an unexpected journey to Massachusetts and New Hampshire . . . to obtain money for the commissary Department . . . prevented my return till two days since [June 23].” Only necessity moved Champion, Jr. to resign, as he describes: “Nor can I express the mortification I now feel on quitting a profession which it has been my study to understand, and highest ambition to discharge the duties of . . . ever since the first alarm at Lexington.” His regrets were far from over: “thanks to the field and other officers of our regiment for the politeness I have received [over] . . . five successive campaigns . . . my best wishes ever attend them . . . the gratitude I feel will end but with my life.” Finally, Champion came to the real reason for his resignation:

the injunctions of a father loaded with business and care, whom it is my duty & interest as well as inclination not to disoblige, could alone prevent my joining and sharing . . . the viscitudes of the war- I am however in part relieved from my anxiety by considering that . . . I can perhaps by retiring from the Army give as much real support to the cause which we espouse as by any personal service I could render in the field.

After four and a half years continual service, Champion opted to focus his was effort on supply, fulfilling his obligations to his country and to his father.[8]

When his letter reached camp, it was his colonel, Wyllys, who forwarded his request to Washington: “Permit me to lay before your Excellency a letter from Capt. Henry Champion . . . requesting a discharge from the army.” Wyllys would lose an able officer—engineer, brigade major, and light infantryman, but yet had plenty of kind words for the captain:

From the earliest period of the war . . . [he] has justly merited the character of an attentive, brave officer & his quitting the army [is] to be regretted; yet his particular circumstances the situation of his father . . . affairs as commisary of purchases . . . Col Champion’s earnest request for his assistance . . . with the essential service Capt. Champion will be able to render the publick in that capacity, induces me to judge his resignation will not injure the service, but conduce much to the Publick good[9]

After the war, Champion Jr. went into the Connecticut State Assembly, serving for much of the 1790s and first decade of the nineteenth century. His presence was noted in the legislature as late as the War of 1812, even chairing a committee that produced a report in 1814 excoriating the federal government for dragging the county into the war on the side of Napoleon. A bit earlier, in 1805, Champion (Henry Sr. died in 1797) and three other men were directed in a letter to President Thomas Jefferson. “The undersigned, directors of the Connecticut Land Company, respectfully request of the President, liberty to hold a Treaty with the Indian Tribes, claiming a Native title to that part of the Connecticut reservation [near] the Cayahuga [River].” The Connecticut Land Company led speculators into the Northwest Territory in the area of Connecticut’s old colonial claim, present northeastern Ohio. It is unknown if Jefferson replied or assented to Champion’s and his colleagues’ request, but as only the federal government could treat with Native nations, it is unlikely he agreed. Champion next appears in history with his burial, following his July 13, 1836 death at eighty-five years old. Henry had married Abigail Tinker Champion in April 1781, and the couple had five children, the three of whom survived were all daughters. According to family lore, every July 16 Champion celebrated “Stony Point Day,” honoring his participation in his fiercest battle. Soldier, engineer, commissary, legislator, and land speculator, Capt. Henry Champion, Jr. of Colchester, Connecticut, lived a life full of service to the nation he fought to build.[10]


[1]George Washington to Joseph Reed, November 8, 1775, Founders Online (FO), founders.archive.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0308. It is possible that this tale is mistaken; Champion never mentioned his brief naval foray, but it might just not have been worth mentioning in later years. Major Henry Champion, Geni, geni.com/people/Major-Henry-Champion-Continental-Army/6000000008320495144; Pension Application of Henry Champion, Jr., Fold3, fold3.com/image/13937643; Henry P. Johnston, Record of Service of Connecticut Men of the Military and Naval Service during the War of the Revolution, 1775-1783. Tase, Lockwood & Bromard Co. (Hartford: 1889), 50.

[2]A Return of Field Officers Appointed to ye . . . 22nd Regiment, November 9, 1775. Fold3, fold3.com/image/16257966. Nathanael Greene and Lord Stirling to George Washington, FO, founders.archioves.gov/documents/Washington/03-04-02-0270.

[3]General Orders for July 19, 1776, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0278; David Smith, New York 1776: The Continentals First Battle (Oxford: Osprey, 2008), 48, 69; Date of Enlistment or Appointment, Henry Champion, fold3.com/image/14698343.

[4]Henry Champion to Lewis Cass, September 19, 1832, Henry Champion Pension File, Fold3, fold3.com/image246/13937768; Alex Storozynski, The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Koscuiszko and the Age of Revolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), 52-5.

[5]Henry Champion Field and Staff Muster, November 1778, Fold3, fold3.com/image/14698621.

[6]Henry Champion Field and Staff Muster, December 1778, Fold3, fold3.com/image/14698646; Henry Champion Field and Staff Muster, June 1779, Fold3, fold3.com/image/14699058. Both Sherman’s and Champion’s battalions had four companies each. Muster Roll, December 1779, Fold3, fold3.com/image/14699426.

[7]Henry Champion, Sr. to George Washington, April 18, 1780, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01512; Henry Chanmpion, Sr. to George Washington, April 24, 1780, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/washington/99-01-02-01567; George Washington to Henry Champion, Sr., May 4, 1780, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01648; Henry Champion, Jr. to George Washington, May 6, 1780, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-01668.

[8]Henry Champion, Sr. to Washington, May 25, 1780, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-1853; Washington to Henry Champion, Sr., Henry Champion Pension Files, Fold3, fold3.com/image/13937785; Henry Champion Resignation Letter, Fold3, fold3.com/image/312839976.

[9]Samuel Wyllys to Washington, July 10, 1780. Henry Champion Pension Files, Fold3, fold3.com/image/13937703.

[10]D. Hamilton Hurd, History of New London Country with Biographical Sketches (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1882), 398; Theodore Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention with a Review of the Policy of the United States Government which led to the War of 1812 (New York: Russel, Odiorne, & Co., 1833), 344-9; findagrave.com/memorial/7026857/henry-champion; Henry Champion et al to Thomas Jefferson, February 28, 1805, FO, founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-1244; Connecticut Western Reserve, ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Connecticut_Western_Reserve; findagrave.com/memorial/7026837/henry-champion; Geni, ibid.

One thought on “Henry Champion: An Officer Resigns

  • Michael, A well-researched overview of a forgotten patriot leader whose house still stands in Colchester. Nice timing about a brave soldier who fought at the Battle of Stony Point 240 years ago this summer.

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