The amazing story of Benoni Simmons’s military service in the American Revolution spans some fourteen years, perhaps the longest term of service by anyone in that conflict. More so, his astounding dedication to the cause of independence despite his grievous wounds make him a true American hero.
Benoni Simmons was born August 4, 1755, the son of John Simmons and Lydia (Grinnell) Simmons. He was a Mayflowerdescendant. His family was not considered wealthy. He grew up in what was then and still is the bucolic community of Little Compton, Rhode Island, a center for agricultural plantations, often with the work of slaves, but the Simmons family is said not to have had any. While situated on the ocean coast, the community was not known for maritime pursuits, likely because of the rocky shoals of its surrounding waters at the head of the Sakonnet River. Perhaps bored by the prospect of farming and seeking a more adventurous life, young Benoni went off by the age of seventeen to become apprenticed into the ship-building trade.
Burning the Gaspee
Evidence to support Benoni Simmons’s participation and military service was given in his wife Nancy’s application for a widow’s pension. She had to wait until 1838 to file her application, the year that Congress finally extended benefits to the few surviving widows of Revolutionary War veterans.
Nancy Simmons stated that:
Her said husband, the said Benoni, while a youth, was first an apprentice to the ship building business in the town of Providence in this state, and there resided until some time in the year 1774 [sic—actually 1772]. In this year I believe the Enemy’s armed vessel ‘Gaspee’ was burnt in Providence River, by a body of men in disguise, from Providence and some neighboring towns—And I have heard my sd husband often state that he was one of them that went with the party from Providence—And that he, on that occasion, took his neck handkerchief to bind around the leg of a man who was slightly wounded—I have many times heard him claim ‘The burning of the Gaspee’ as being the first Act of the Colonies in opposition to Arbitrary power wherein blood was shed at the opening of the war. Soon after this event he went to reside in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Federal pension applications were serious matters, and all information contained in them had to be sworn to in front of two or more witnesses. The inclusion of Benoni Simmons’s participation in the attack on the Gaspee in 1772 is truly a gem, for it could not be used to calculate service time for pension purposes. Rather, it was most likely included as a statement of pride. In 1826 four other surviving members of that attack were fȇted at parades during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of American Independence. This led some remaining Gaspee attackers to include notice of their own participation in the attack in documents such as Revolutionary War service pension applications.
Nancy Simmons’s statement that men in the attack disguised themselves as Indians may lend new credence to this argument, which has been often disputed, for several raiders claimed that they were not disguised in any way. The wounded man mentioned in the deposition cannot be identified. The captain of the Gaspee, Lt. William Dudingston, was seriously wounded in the arm and groin but was attended to by others, including student doctor John Mawney. Several other people were said to have been slightly wounded in the attack and perhaps one was attended to by Simmons.
Several shipyards flourished in those times, including one at Providence’s Fox Point operated by prominent merchant John Brown, who happened to also be the chief instigator for the attack on the Gaspee in 1772. The rather large contingent of teenagers involved in the attack may well have been, like Benoni Simmons, apprenticed under the Brown family shipbuilding businesses. Why Simmons subsequently moved to Glastonbury is subject to conjecture, but that area had developed a considerable shipbuilding trade along the Connecticut River during the eighteenth century. Benoni Simmons may have left Providence to advance his apprenticeship there.
The Siege of Boston
Included in Nancy Simmons’spensionapplication papers are some items written by her late husband. Combined with several other sources, they chronicle the remarkable service of Benoni Simmons in the American Revolution. He wrote,
At the Lexington Alarm he went from Glastonbury to Roxbury in April 1775 where he enlisted for nine months as a Private under Captain Wyllys, Col. Spencer’s Connecticut Regiment, and participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. After wintering in Roxbury in January, 1776, he re-enlisted for one year as a Sergeant under Capt. Ebenezer Stevens in Colonel Knox’s Massachusetts Regiment.
Quebec and the Battle of Valcour Island
He continued, “soon after the Enemy left Boston, he was ordered to Canada. They proceeded by way of Lake Champlain into Canada as far as Troix Riviers [Three Rivers]—they then returned back to Montreal, thence to Isle aux Noix [Island of Walnuts], thence to Ticonderoga.” This expeditionary force into Canada was not one that had been assigned to Col. Knox’s Regiment but rather to that of Capt. Ebenezer Stevens, transferred under the overall command of Col. Benedict Arnold. This is probably where Simmons received his training in artillery.
After the retreat from Canada, Simmons’s experience as a shipwright no doubt was invaluable to the American forces that were busily constructing vessels on Lake Champlain to delay the British advance. He “entered on board of the GalleyTrumbull, Capt. Seth Warner, as master gunner at the rate of thirteen dollars per month—and in an engagement with the enemy on said Lake on the October 11, 1776 he had the misfortune to lose his arm by a shot from the Enemy.” This was the Battle of Valcour Island. Simmonslost his entire left arm up to the shoulder—either to direct combat or possibly to surgical amputation after being wounded.
After recovering at the “General Hospital at Fort George,” it appears he went to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he “was in the laboratory for a short time.” This “laboratory” was the newly established Springfield Armory where American forces stored weapons and manufactured ammunition and gunpowder cartridges. Included in Nancy Simmons’s application for a widow’s pension was a letter from January 1777 written by Capt. Ebenezer Stevens, his artillery company commander, attesting to Benoni’s capability to continue work supporting the army in a laboratory or other such occupation despite his disability.
He spent a brief period in Philadelphia in the newly-formed Corps of Invalids, composed of soldiers no longer fit for campaigning but able to provide armed security for weapons depots and hospitals. By the time the British occupation of Philadelphia forced the Corpsto evacuate west to Valley Forge with the rest of the Continental Army, Benoni Simmons had already rejoined the actively fighting forces elsewhere.
The Battle of Red Bank
Even though he had been awarded a pension for his injuries, he returned to active service. He was aboard an unnamed vessel or galley in the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia on October 27, 1777, “at the time of the Battle at Red Bank,” where he was “in full view of the contending parties.” This was the successful American defense of Fort Mercer which seriously impeded British efforts to resupply their army in Philadelphia.
From November 1777 through October 1778 he served as a sergeant in Capt. David Bryant’s Company of Col. David Mason’s Artillery Regiment, and then served in Capt. Benjamin Frothingham’s Company of Col. John Crane’s Artillery Regiment back at Springfield where he had signed up for a three-year reenlistment. He was reported discharged September 30, 1778. But by March 1779 he had enlisted as a sergeant in the artillery company of Captain Squire Howe, Col. Robert Elliot’s Rhode Island Regiment of Artillery stationed in the area of his home town, Little Compton. He was discharged in March 1780.
Joining the Navy
The land war was mostly over with the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, but further fighting still occurred at sea. Simmons apparently still itched for action against the British and joined the Continental Navy on December 31, 1781. He served on board USS Alliance under Capt. John Barry, “went to France, and carried home . . . the Marquis de Lafayette and purchased from a servant of the Marquis a coat which had been the Marquis’.”
Simmons was not, however, listed among the crew of the Alliance when it fought the final battle of the Revolution, that engagement being with HMS Sybil on March 10, 1783, some five weeks after the Treaty of Paris was signed. It may be that Simmons had moved on by then, assisting the cause in some other way or accompanying Lafayette to his home in France.
Benoni Simmons was discharged from the active navy rolls on March 17, 1786, having served eleven years in the active military. With the loss of his left arm he could no longer ply the large shipbuilding trade, and cannoneer was not a civilian job option when the standing Continental Army and Navy were dissolved at the end of the Revolution. Benoni Simmons returned to his home town of Little Compton to once again take up farming, perhaps some boat building.
He married his neighbor Nancy Bailey in 1784. When some of her friends and family expressed reservations, she is quoted as saying, “I’d rather be hugged by that one arm than all the rest of the arms in the world.”
Census records from Little Compton include Benoni, his wife, and their five surviving children born by 1800. The family was not known to have any slaves. Benoni Simmons was appointed as a town officer, auctioneer of Little Compton, in 1819.
He also filed for and received a Rhode Island State invalid pension in March 1789 whereby he was granted a disability income of sixty dollars per year. He also applied for and received federal wounded veteran’s pension. The records of these pensions, held in Washington, DC,were largely destroyed when the British sacked and burned the town in 1814. Although his own pension file is gone, his name appears on a rare surviving 1813 list of all Federal pension recipients.
Issues arose with the federal pension application because his ranks of sergeant and master gunner were not always recorded as such in the muster lists of either the army or naval forces in which he served. His rank determined the amount to which he was entitled as a pension, and he initially received the incorrect amount. According to his widow, he “on being informed of the error, demonstrated against it, but being then as he ever since has been poor and infirm was compelled to take the $5 per month, or suffer for the want thereof . . . until the year 1816 when, by the Act of Congress his Pension was increased to $8 per month.” In an ironic twist, Simmons’s pension case was handled by Paul Allen, Esq., a Commissioner of Invalid Pensions for Rhode Island, who had been along with Simmons on the Gaspee attack back in 1772.
In 1818, the United States Congress passed a new pension act. Simmons may have been satisfied with the eight-dollar pension he was receiving, or his previous experience (coupled with his understanding, recorded by his widow, that he was not entitled to a “regular” pension) may have persuaded him not to risk losing the pension he was already receiving. For whatever reason, he did not apply for a “regular” pension under the 1818 and 1820 Pension Acts.
Benoni Simmons diedon June 15, 1835 in Little Compton, at the age of seventy-nine years. In 1848 at the advanced age of eighty-two years, Nancy Simmons was finally granted her widows’ pension of ten dollars per month. She died in 1855 at age eighty-eight. Both are buried in the Old Commons Cemetery in Little Compton where Benoni Simmons’s grave has a marker from the Sons of the American Revolution.
Benoni Simmons’s son, John Simmons, moved to Boston as a young man and made a fortune in the ready-made clothing business. He hired immigrant Irish and German girls and prodded them that they would never get ahead unless they received a proper education. For their benefit, he left the bulk of his large estate to found Simmons College in Boston.
In addition to helping spark the Revolution by participating in the burning of the Gaspee in 1772, Benoni Simmons served continuously from 1775 through 1786, encompassing the entire Revolutionary War and beyond, and rose through the ranks to Sergeant of Artillery and Master Gunner even after receiving a wound that would have put most men out of action entirely. Serving in both the Continental Army and Navy, he was undoubtedly fearless and fearsome at the same time, while exemplifying the very best of patriotic ideals and valor in his continuous service during the American Revolution.
I am indebted to Chuck Simmons of Idaho, who had extensively researched his family genealogy. His research and discovery of his ancestor’s pension application made the study of Benoni Simmons much easier. Pension application of Mary Simmons, W.13,899, National Archives and Records Administration.
Marjory Gomez O’Toole, If Jane Should Want to be Sold: Stories of Enslavement, Indenture, and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island (Little Compton, RI: Little Compton Historical Society, 2016), 102.
See John Concannon, “The Conspiracy to Destroy the Gaspee,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 8, 2018, and Steven Park, “Revising the Gaspee Legacy,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 28, 2015.
Before Simmons joined this regiment, these were the troops that had previously transported captured British artillery pieces from Fort Ticonderoga on sleds through horrible winter conditions all the way to the Heights of Dorchester overlooking then British-occupied Boston. This prompted the enemy to negotiate a hasty withdrawal from the city in March 1776.
A galley is a rowed warship typically used as a cannon platform or for a fireball-hurling catapult. For an account of the horrible conditions encountered by American soldiers at Isle au Noix see: Douglas R. Cubbison, The American Northern Theater Army in 1776: The Ruin and Reconstruction of the Continental Force (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), 120.
Sarah Soule Wilbour, “Notice of some Compton men who have made their mark in other places,” in Portraits in Time: Three Centuries of Remarkable Residents, 1600-1900 (Little Compton, RI: Little Compton Historical Society, 2008), 49.