Killer Trees of the Revolution

Encampments during the American Revolution were often established by clearing forests, resulting in the possibility of death or injury due to a falling branches or trees. Note the numerous stumps and trees left in proximity to several of the tents. This is a detail from and engraving of the Convention Army encampment in Virginia. (New York Public Library)

Around a hundred people are tragically killed in the United States each year by falling trees or limbs. Death or injury by trees was also among the hazards of war between 1775 and 1783.[1]

The first reported soldier to die was British, ironically killed by the Liberty Tree of Boston. Samuel Haws recorded in his journal that an eyewitness told him that on August 31, 1775, “After a long spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing, and foaming with malice diabolical, they cut down a tree, because it bore the name of liberty. A tory soldier was killed by its fall.” A newspaper account recounted that “a soldier in attempting to dismantle it of one of its branches, fell on the pavement, by which he was instantly killed.”[2]

Several soldiers were killed during Arnold’s March to Quebec. In what seems to be two separate incidents at the Great Carrying Place on October 10, 1775, the wind “blowed hard, and one of the men was killed by the falling of a tree.” The next day “a man was pasing a tree that sum of ye men was cutting fell on him & wounded him so that he dyed  /  we buried him thare /”[3] Arnold lost another man on October 14: “Last night a man was wounded by the fall of a tree they had made a fire against, one Buck, belonging to Capt. McCobbs company.” Another writer noted the same day that “To-day the man that was wounded, by the fall of tree last night, died of the wounds he received.” In what might have been another incident or perhaps a misdating, on October 16, Return Johnathan Meigs recorded, “Last night a tree, blown down by the wind, fell upon one of our men and bruised him in such a manner that his life is despaired of.” A later account of October 16 stated. “This evening a soldier was killed by a tree falling on him.”[4]

On October 9, 1776, at, Point du Fer, Lake Champlain, tragedy struck the British soldier encamped there: “We had 3 men killed on the spot by a tree that was cut down near their tent, and unfortunatly fell on them which asleep. To prevent such a melancholy accident happening again, an order was given for no tree to be felled, within 100 yards of the camp.” The same year another unfortunate was American Joseph Lufkin who was “in the western army, was killed by the falling of a tree, which broke his neck, while the soldiers were cutting wood preparatory to going into camp for the night.”[5]

After the Battle of Germantown, Washington’s army was hit with several accidents. Surgeon’s Mate Jonathan Todd of the 7th Connecticut Regiment recorded that on October 29, “Rain Continues—High Winds A Tree Blew on a Man & Kill’d him When of an Sleep—this happen’d nigh us.” In December Col. Israel Angell of Rhode Island recorded two incidents at the Gulph. On December 14, “There was one man kill’d this day by falling A Tree.” On December 19 “there was a Strong Norwest wind . . . it broke down one tree across a tent where five men lay a Sleep but providentily hurt but one man, and he had his thigh brooke.” The same day as the army marched into Valley Forge, “Demsasey had his arm broke by the fall of a tree.” This was probably Patrick Dempsey of the First Massachusetts Regiment.[6]

Some fatalities caused by trees were not immediate. At Bear Grass, Kentucky, Col. John Floyd lamented that “the first tree Bob cut down on the place lodged and slipped back on the stump and tore off his right foot, or at least all the skin and flesh from the ankle down. I have nothing to dress it and I am persuaded it must rot off what is left.” Bob suffered with the injury for over two months: “poor Bob (whose foot was badly hurt by the first tree he cut on the place, lodging and sliding off the stump) died about 3 weeks ago, after all I could do. He got frost bitten in camp before I could get him a cabin, and was reduced to a mere skeleton.”[7]

Some tree accidents did not result in injury. A brigade order of October 2, 1780, at Orangetown, New York, exonerated a hapless soldier: “Arthur Hurley Soldier in the 3d N. York Regiment was tryed for wilfully destroying the Continental property by falling a tree on tents and arms of the 5th N. York Regiment after being told Several times that it would fall that way on the tents the Court are of Oppinnion he is not Guilty of the Charge and do acquit him.”[8]

Joseph Plumb Martin remembered an incident with a tree that nearly deprived us of his entertaining memoir. While camped at the Short Hills in 1780,

I came near taking another final discharge from the army in consequence of my indiscretion and levity. I was one day upon a camp guard. We kept our guard in the fields, and to defend us from the night dew we laid down under some trees which stood upon the brink of a very deep gully. The sides and tops of the banks of this gully were covered with walnut or hickory saplings, three, four, or five inches in diameter, at their butts, and many of them were fifty or sixty feet in height. In the morning before the guard was relieved, some of the men (and I among the rest, to be sure, I was never far away when such kind of business was going forward) took it into our heads to divert ourselves by climbing these trees as high as they would bear us, and then swinging off our feet; the weight would bring us by a gentle flight to the ground, when the tree would resume its former position.

After exercising ourselves some time at this diversion, I thought I would have one capital swing. Accordingly, I climbed one of the tallest trees that stood directly on the verge of the gully, and swung off over the gully. When the tree had been to about an horizontal position, it snapped off as short as a pipestem. I suppose I was nearly or quite forty feet from the ground. from which distance I came, feet foremost, to the ground at quick time. The ground was soft, being loamy and entirely free from stones, so that it did me but little hurt, but I held the part of the tree I had broken off firmly in my grasp, when I struck the ground with my feet I brought it wit all the force of my weight and its own directly upon the top of my unthinking skull, which knocked me as stiff as a ringbolt. It was several minutes before I recovered recollection enough to know or remember what I had been about, but I weathered the point, although it gave me a severe headache for several days afterwards, as a memento to keep upon the ground and not attempt to act the part of a flying squirrel.[9]

There were also accidents with trees that killed civilians. On January 2, 1775, a Bostonian recorded “A Man falling a Tree in Chesterfield, and two Woman and a Child passing by them at the same time in a Sleigh, the Tree fell up-upon them, and killed them all.” After peace had come a man at Tinmouth, Vermont, “one Mr. Hamlin of that town, being employed in cutting down a tree, it unfortunately fell on him and killed him instantly.” On Long Island, on January 23, 1781, “There was a very violent storm of wind, rain, & snow last night & this Morng which blew down large trees and unroof’d some houses; 4 women kill’d.”[10]

Two days before the Battle of Guildford Courthouse, the Rockbridge County militia of Virginia paraded near the Haw River in North Carolina and “and at last fired in platoons and battalions; in doing so one of the North Carolina militia was shot through the head; a bullet glancing from a tree, struck Geo. Moore on the head—of our battalion.” The damage to Moore was not recorded.[11]

A tree striking a canoe. Soldiers and civilians were both vulnerable to trees and branches falling due to weather conditions or saturated soil. (Library of Congress)

Several others were not as fortunate in 1781. Captain Matthew Arbuckle had been commissioned to lay out a route from Lewisburg to Warm Springs, Bath County. In June of that year, returning from the capital at Williamsburg, Arbuckle was caught in a violent storm near the banks of the Jackson River and killed by a falling tree. Far from Virginia, in Montreal, German soldier “George Nohre, Private in Brigade-major Captain Piquet’s Grenadier Company, died 20 August, in the service of the King, in an unfortunate manner, while cutting wood, in St. Jean Parish, in the District of Montreal. While cutting down trees, one fell on him.”[12]

The highest ranking soldier killed by a tree was Lt. Col. Francis Barber of New Jersey, on February 11, 1783.

The circumstances that led to this unhappy catastrophe, we are told, are as follows: Two soldiers were cutting down a tree, at the instant he came riding by it was falling, which he did not observe till they desired him to take care, but the surprize was so sudden, and embarrassed his ideas so much, that he reined his horse to the unfortunate spot where the tree fell, which tore his body in a shocking manner, and put an immediate period to his existence in this life. Panegyrick is too commonly paid to deceased persons in news-papers, and many have often had characters bestowed upon them when dead which they never possessed when living; but in office to Col. Barber we cannot help mentioning that he was in domestic life, a most tender and affectionate husband, a kind parent, an entertaining and improving companion; and as to his military abilities, either as a soldier or disciplinarian, none excelled, and but few equalled him, for he had arrived to the top of his profession, and was particularly useful to the army in general, who sadly deplore the loss of so worthy a character, so untimely slain.” Once officer commented “he is severely lamented by all his acquaintances.” At distant Boston, Major General William Heath wrote “By this event a brave officer and valuable citizen was lost, who had frequently distinguished himself in action; his fall; therefore, in this manner, and at the very grasp of the harvest of his toils, was rendered the more affecting.[13]

Decades after the war ended, a number of former soldiers recounted encounters with trees in pension applications. Joshua Hill of the District of Abbeville, South Carolina, applied for a pension in 1842. He was called up into the militia of North Carolina, into a Captain Meredith’s company. In July 1780, “A wind & Rain came on in the night where we were encamped, a tree fell & killed one Warren Walker and badly crippled Lieutenant Robert Hill my Brother this happened some time in July, in what is now Cabarrus County in that State. Myself & two others were ordered to bring the dead man & take back my Brother in a litter to a house & nurse him.” In 1833 pension applicant  William Merrit remembered that “Lieutenant Hill was badly wounded in a Severe Storm of Wind by the fall of a tree.” Two other soldiers mentioned Lieutenant Hill’s injury. William Southern of Stokes County, North Carolina, applying for a pension in 1833, at seventy-five or six years of age, recalled “his Lieut. Robert Hill who was accidentally wounded by the fall of a tree near or in Cabarrus N. Carolina.” John Quillin was in the same company, and attested to Southern’s statement: “his Lieutenant Hill was wounded by the fall of a tree & this Deponent was ordered to nurse and take his Lieutenant aforesaid with other assistance”[14]

Eighty-five year old Samuel Stidham applied for a pension in Perry County, Kentucky in 1832.

He remembered being drafted into the North Carolina militia under General Rutherford, and his company was ordered to take ammunition to Horatio Gates’s army. They then marched about one day and night and took up camp on Long Creek “where a man got killed by the falling of a tree on him – that himself and another soldier was left to bury the dead man which they done & started on in pursuit of the Army the next day & met the Company returning after delivering the Ammunition as they had said & that he then returned with the Company they having been discharged.” Another fatal accident was recalled by eighty-four year old Thomas Williams, of DeKalb County, Alabama. He entered the army as a nine-month volunteer in January 1781, was discharged in the Fall of 1781, and “was at one time during this service with one Captain Clarke who was killed by the falling of a tree.” [15]

Others recalled injuries caused by trees. In 1833, James Crawford of Tipton County, Tennessee, claimed he enlisted in 1780 in the Carolina State Troops under Col. Wade Hampton to serve a tour of ten months. He and twenty or so other men were ordered to retake Orangeburg. But they discovered the enemy force to be about 500 men, and were ordered to retreat, “in doing which this declarant was thrown from his horse against a small tree where he was left for dead.” William Addington of North Carolina applied for a pension in 1832; he claimed he was a volunteer under a Captain William in South Carolina and served at the siege of Ninety-Six in May-June 1781. After that he was marched to Granby where he “was discharged in consequence of a wound received by the fall of a tree a few weeks before, having been in service for two months.” Richard Ballew of Knox County, Kentucky, claimed that in 1779 he had signed up for a three month tour under Col. Joseph McDowell to pursue hostile Indians. The column went “on to  Swannanoa and crossed it above where Buncombe Court house now stands—thence to the old Cowetowns—where we had a battle with the Indians. In the heat of this engagement under an order to charge my horse ran against an old peach tree or rather in passing through the forks of the peach tree my ankle was twisted out of place, which has rendered me a cripple to this day.” In 1834, Jacob Buzbee of St. Clair County, Alabama, applied for a pension, claiming that some time after the Battle of Eutaw Springs he “joined one Capt. James Turner, with whom he remained four months; then being disabled by his horse dashing him against a tree & breaking his leg which caused both it and his thigh to perish away, he was compelled to abandon the Service.”[16]

More research into the primary sources will reveal more injurious encounters between soldiers and trees. But trees are only one of the sources of non-combat injury or death from 1775 to 1783.

 

[1]www.reiffandbily.com/100-people-killed-trees-every-year-united-states/.

[2]Samuel Haws Journal, in Abraham Tomlinson, comp. The Military Journals of Two Private Soldiers, 1758-1775 (Poughkeepsie: Abraham Tomlinson, 1855; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 68; The Connecticut Courant, September 11, 1775. This account appears in a number of contemporary newspapers.

[3]Andrew A. Melvin, ed., The Journal of James Melvin, Private Soldier, in Arnold’s Expedition Against Quebec in the Year 1775 (Portland, ME: Hubbard W. Bryant, 1902), 46; Jeremiah Greenman, Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, 1775-1783, ed. Robert C. Bray & Paul E. Bushell (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978), 15.

[4]Mrs. Melvin Green, ed. “Journal of Major Return Johnathan Meigs, 1776,” Annual Papers of the Winchester Virginia Historical Society vol. 1, (Winchester: The Society: 1931), 133. “An Account of General Arnold’s march from Cambridge to Quebec,” The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, March 27, 1779.

[5]James Phinney Baxter, The British Invasion From the North: The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne: With the Journal of Lieut. William Digby (Albany: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 121; Benj. F. Arrington, ed., Municipal History of Essex County in Massachusetts: Tercentenary Edition, vol. 2 (New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1922), 812. Digby was an officer in the 53rd Regiment of Foot, but that regiment’s muster rolls do not indicate any deaths that correspond with this event; the men killed may have been from another corps.

[6]Jonathan Todd, Journal, Connecticut State Library, MS #973.3/D75; Israel Angell Diary, Rhode Island Historical Society; Henry Sewall Diary, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[7]John Floyd to Col. William Preston, November 26, 1779, in Neal Hammon & James Russell Harris, eds., “‘In a dangerous situation,’ Letters of Col. John Floyd, 1774-1783,” The Register of The Kentucky Historical Society, 83 (Summer 1965), 217. Same to Same, February 20, 1780, “John Floyd,” 220.

[8]Almon W. Lauber, ed., Orderly Books of the Fourth New York Regiment…with Diaries of Samuel Tallmadge, 1780-1782 and John Barr, 1779-1782 (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1932), 518.

[9]Joseph Plumb Martin, Private Yankee Doodle: Being the Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, ed. George F. Scheer (New York: Eastern Acorn Press, 1979), 189-90.

[10]John Boyle, “Boyle’s Journal of Occurrences in Boston, 1759-1778,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register85 (1931), 5; Thomas’s The Massachusetts Spy: Or, Worchester Gazette, July 3, 1783;  John Peebles Journal, Cuninghame of Thorton Papers, Mss. 489-98, Scottish Records Office, Edinburgh, Scotland, microfilm, David Library of the American Revolution.

[11]Samuel Houston’s Journal, William Henry Foote, Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical second series (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1855), 143.

[12]http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-in/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=19481302; Bruce E. and Marie E. Burgoyne, Burgoyne, comp. and trans., Hessian Chaplains: Their Diaries and Duties (Berwyn Heights, MD: Heritage Books, 2003), 99.

[13]The New-Jersey Journal, February 19, 1783; Major J. A. Wright to Samuel Blachley Webb, February 26, 1783, in Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (New York: Arno Press, 1969) 3: 3; William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, ed. William Abbatt (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 336.

[14]All pension references at follow are from Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements and Rosters,  http://www.revwarapps.org/. Pension applications of Joshua Hill R5003; William Merrit, S2821; William Southern S7575.

[15]Pension Applications of Samuel Stidham S14598; Thomas Williams R11610.

[16]Pension Applications of James Crawford S3227; William Addington, W5598; Richard Ballew S15305; Jacob Buzbee S32149.

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3 Comments

  • John Peebles’ journal, edited by Ira Gruber, has been published, although copies are hard to come by.
    See note 10.

  • A fun article, thank you. I hadn’t remembered the selection from Joseph Plumb Martin… and immediately thought of Robert Frost’s BIRCHES.
    “…. I should prefer to have some boy bend them
    As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
    Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
    Whose only play was what he found himself,
    Summer or winter, and could play alone.
    One by one he subdued his father’s trees
    By riding them down over and over again
    Until he took the stiffness out of them,
    And not one but hung limp, not one was left
    For him to conquer. He learned all there was
    To learn about not launching out too soon
    And so not carrying the tree away
    Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
    To the top branches, climbing carefully
    With the same pains you use to fill a cup
    Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
    Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
    Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
    So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
    And so I dream of going back to be.
    It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
    And life is too much like a pathless wood
    Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
    Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
    From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
    I’d like to get away from earth awhile
    And then come back to it and begin over.
    May no fate willfully misunderstand me
    And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
    Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
    I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
    I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
    And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
    Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
    But dipped its top and set me down again.
    That would be good both going and coming back.
    One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

  • Thanks for a great article, Mr. Boyle! Effects of the physical environment on the Continental Army and militia will be one of the focus areas for my dissertation, and you have provided some excellent information and resource material.

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