A previous article featured ten graves of Americans who served in the Revolutionary War, chosen primarily because of their elaborate monuments. Most of them were for high-ranking leaders: generals and admirals. Here we present ten gravesites of common soldiers, including seven individual gravesites and three mass graves. It is based largely on my own knowledge and travels, and is not meant to prioritize these patriots over the thousands of others with grave markers.
Private Peter Salem, 1750-1816
This patriot soldier was a former slave who was one of at least five hundred African-Americans who served in the Revolutionary War. Salem was born into slavery in Framingham, Massachusetts, and later freed by his owner so he could fight with the patriot militia against the British. Joining Captain Edgell’s Company of minutemen, Salem fought at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Weeks later, soldiers of the New England army raised funds to reward Salem for his bravery, and over time . Salem reenlisted and served at the Battles of Saratoga and Stony Point in New York. Following the war, he settled in Leicester, Massachusetts, and built a log cabin. He had a meager existence as a weaver for cane seats for chairs, died in a poorhouse, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Old Burying Ground in Framingham. In 1882, the town erected a monument in his honor. He is buried at Church Hill Cemetery.
Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument
Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, New York City
This 149-foot-tall granite Doric column sits over the crypt of the remains of some of the soldiers who were prisoners on the notorious British prison ships, including the Jersey, Scorpion, Hope, Falmouth, and others. Upwards of 11,500 patriots are believed to have died on the ships, and their remains were often thrown overboard, with their bones drifting onto the shoreline for decades. The remains were first gathered and interred in 1808, and more were found in 1873 during the development of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Noted architect Standford White was hired to design the impressive monument. At the top of the column is an eight-ton bronze funeral urn by sculptor Adolf Weinman. President-elect William Howard Taft delivered the keynote speech at the dedication ceremony in 1908.
In 1852 the town of Milford honored the common grave of forty six patriot soldiers who had been infected with smallpox while they suffered on the British prison ships. One of those ships sailed into Long Island Sound and onto Milford’s beach on January 1, 1777. Many were able to leave Milford, but nearly a quarter died in the town. The names of the forty six soldiers are listed on one facade of the monument, while another face tells the story of Capt. Steven Stow, a Milford resident who cared for the sick soldiers before he too died of smallpox on February 8, 1777. The monument is about fifty feet from the Metro-North Railroad that operates between New Haven and New York City. For this reason, President Abraham Lincoln made a train stop there to pay his respects during one of his tours.
Sergeant Herman Baker, 1749-1777
East Hartford, Connecticut
Sergeant Baker was one of the soldiers dumped on the Milford shore who was able to walk, or limp laboriously in his terribly sickened state, all the way north towards his home in Bolton. He had first served in the Lexington and Concord Alarm, marching to Boston that April. The next month he joined the fifth company of the 2nd Continental Regiment that in the fall would plod their way through the wilderness of Maine to Quebec. It was during the Canadian campaign under Connecticut’s Generals David Wooster and Benedict Arnold that Sergeant Baker was captured by the British. They eventually brought him to one of the prison ships in New York harbor. He made it all the way from Milford to East Hartford, where he finally collapsed and succumbed to his smallpox illness, just one town short of making it home to die in the care of his family. He was buried on a farm that in modern times became the property of the Pratt & Whitney company. His grave still endures right alongside a busy Willow Road. In 2004, a plaque was dedicated in his honor, and every Veterans’ Day since then, veterans among the Pratt & Whitney employee ranks have a special ceremony at his grave. His gravesite is well maintained by those veterans.
Private Jeffrey Brace, 1742-1827
Jeffrey Brace was born around 1742 in West Africa. He was captured by slave traders at the age of sixteen and shipped to Barbados, where he was sold to a New England ship captain. After fighting as an enslaved sailor in the French and Indian War, Brace was taken in 1763 to New Haven and again sold. In May 1777, he enlisted at Woodbury, Connecticut, as a private for the duration of the war in John Trowbridge’s Company of Col. Return Jonathan Meigs’s 6th Connecticut Regiment. The regiment initially encamped at Peekskill, New York, before undertaking raids on Long Island. The regiment wintered in 1777-1778 at West Point and helped build the stone fortifications on the east side of the river on what is now called Constitution Island. The following winter it encamped at Redding, Connecticut, under Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam. In 1779 the regiment was among those that stormed Stony Point under Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne. In the last two years of the war Brace served in Col. Zebulon Butler’s 4th Connecticut Regiment. After diligently serving five years and nine months, Brace was discharged at West Point, earning him the Badge of Merit awarded to soldiers who had served at least three years in the Continental Army. Following the war, Brace returned to Woodbury for a year before moving to Vermont, where he married and raised a family. Though his gravesite appears to be unmarked, the cemetery in the town of Georgia, Vermont, is marked with a large sign to tell his patriotic story.
French Memorial Grave, 1778/1901
Norwichtown Burying Ground, Norwich, Connecticut
Not only is this grave unusual because it is a communal or mass grave of Frenchman, but also because it is not entirely clear which Frenchman are actually buried there. In 1901 the Faith Trumbull Chapter of the Connecticut Daughters of the American Revolution placed a boulder with a bronze plaque on a small hillside as a memorial to what was assumed were twenty French soldiers who had died while encamped in Norwich in September 1778. There is also a French monument on the same site, and many French citizens have paid their respects while touring historic sites in the area.
The true story is that while Maj. Gen. Marquis de Lafayette was the brigade or division commander who led his troops from Lyme, Connecticut, to Norwich that August, including Brig. Gen John Glover’s brigade, Lafayette was the only Frenchman among them. No French troops arrived near Norwich until Duc de Lauzun’s cavalry encamped for the winter in nearby Lebanon in very late 1780 into the spring of 1781.
So, who were these mysterious Frenchman buried in Norwich? Thanks to the recent research of local historians led by Dale Plummer, the puzzle has been solved—sort of. The first clue is a local newspaper of the day, The Norwich Packet, which printed on October 12, 1778: “Last Saturday arrived in this town from Boston, under a proper guard, and this day set out for New York, about 230 British prisoners, taken by the Count d’Estaing’s; they are to be exchanged for the like number of Frenchmen, captured by the English.”
The second clue is a letter from Norwich’s Brig. Gen. Jedediah Huntington to his father, Maj. Gen. Jabez Huntington dated at Norwich, October 25, 1778, which says that “between 5 and 600 Frenchmen came in from New York in the Flag [a ship sailing under a flag of truce] they arrived here last Night. Part are gone on this day to Boston.”
The final clue as to the identity of the French buried in Norwichtown is found in a sermon by Rev. Benjamin Lord given on November 21, 1778, in which he enumerated the vital statistics for the year in his parish: “Baptisms this year, 40. Deaths, 36. Of those, infants, 5. Children from 2 years, with the youth to 25, are 10. From the age of 25 to 50, are 13. From 50 to 94, are 7. And also died here in a few weeks, of the French prisoners from New-York, 20. In all, 56.”
The Frenchmen buried in Norwichtown were prisoners of the British Royal Navy—but were they French navy sailors or French civilian sailors from trading vessels? We may never know.
Private Deborah Sampson, 1760-1827
The plaque dedicated by the Deborah Sampson Chapter of the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution in 1906 and placed on a boulder for her patriotic service reads, “In Honor of Deborah Sampson, who for the love country served two years as a soldier in the War of the Revolution” followed by “Deborah was born in Plympton, Massachusetts, December 17, 1760.”
She served seventeen months in the Continental Army under the name “Robert Shirtiff” as part of the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment under Col. George Webb.
She fought in several skirmishes. During her first skirmish, on July 3, 1782, outside Tarrytown, New York, she took two musket balls in her thigh and suffered a cut on her forehead. She pleaded with her fellow soldiers not to take her to a doctor out of fear her gender would be discovered, but they took her anyway. She fled before the doctor at the hospital could care for her leg. She removed one of the two musket balls herself with a penknife and sewing needle.
When she later served with her regiment outside of Philadelphia in the summer of 1783, she became ill and was cared for by Doctor Barnabas Binney, who, upon discovery of the cloth she used to bind her breasts, did not reveal her identity and turned her over to his wife, daughters, and a nurse to care for her. Finally, under the command of Gen. John Paterson, she was honorably discharged at West Point on October 25, 1783.
Sampson later began a career as a public speaker, sharing her story of her service as a soldier. After several failed attempts by her and her famous friend, Paul Revere, she was finally rewarded by Congress in 1816 for her service, allowing her to repay her loans and make improvements to her farm before she died of yellow fever at age sixty-six in 1827.
Lieutenant Jeremiah Greenman, 1758-1828
Jeremiah Greenman’s journal of the American Revolution is likely the second-most read soldier’s writing of the war behind Joseph Plumb Martin’s memoirs. Entitled Diary of a Common Soldier in the American Revolution, it provides a Rhode Island soldier’s simple, regular notes of his many sufferings. Greenman enlisted in the Continental Army in September 1775 and served all the way to the end of the war in 1783. At seventeen years old, he first suffered with the Continental Army under Gen. Benedict Arnold outside Quebec in 1775. His diary entries for that campaign included, “Our provision being short hear we killed a dog” for which he “got a small piece of it.” He was captured and suffered as a prisoner in horrible conditions in Quebec for almost nine months before his release.
Following the landing of the British troops in Newport at the end of 1776, Greenman reenlisted and was promoted to sergeant in the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment. He later served in the Philadelphia campaign in the fall of 1777 before fighting in the Battle of Monmouth. His regiment was among the few that fought in both that battle and the Battle of Rhode Island just two months later. He was recognized for his service and leadership with a promotion to lieutenant in 1779. On the same day he was promoted to first lieutenant in May 1781, he was captured by Loyalist militia. His capture prevented him from participating at the Battle of Yorktown.
At the age of forty-seven, he moved his family from Rhode Island to Ohio in 1806. A month before his death, the seventy-one-year-old Greenman delivered an election speech on behalf of President John Quincy Adams. He is buried on his family farm. His diary is preserved at the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 1755-1841
Elijah Churchill enlisted in the 8th Connecticut Regiment as a private on July 7, 1775. On May 7, 1777 he reenlisted for the duration of the war as a corporal in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, which was trained in Wethersfield, Connecticut, by , later of Culper Ring fame. Churchill was promoted to sergeant in October 1780. He was cited for gallantry in action of Fort St. George near Brookhaven on Long Island in November 1780, and in July 1781 for his exploits at Fort Slongo also on Long Island. He was one of only three soldiers proven to have received the award of the Badge of Military Merit from General Washington at Newburgh, New York. He died at age eighty-five and is buried in Middlefield, Massachusetts. His Badge of Military Merit is on display at a museum near where he received it, today’s New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site.
Sergeant William Brown, 1761-1804
All three of the soldiers known to have received the Badge of Military Merit were sergeants from Connecticut regiments. William Brown was born in Stamford, Connecticut, and enlisted in the 5th Connecticut Regiment as a corporal on May 23, 1775. He reenlisted for the duration of the war in the 8th Connecticut Regiment in April 1777, and was promoted to sergeant in August 1780. When the army was reorganized he was put into the 5th Connecticut Regiment in January 1781. He participated in the assault on Redoubt Number Ten during the Siege of Yorktown.
After the war he moved west to the new town of Cincinnati, Ohio. President Washington sent Gen. Anthony Wayne to Cincinnati in the spring of 1793 to take charge of suppressing Native Americans. Wayne recruited the veteran William Brown to provide him with a company of spies. Brown may have served at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He is buried in Asbury, Ohio, with a modern Department of Defense headstone. It is likely that the Badge of Military Merit on display at the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire, was Brown’s.
Jedediah Huntington to Jabez Huntington, October 25, 1778, Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Volume XX, Huntington Papers, Part I, Correspondence of Col. Joshua Huntington (and other members of the Huntington Family) (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society, 1923), 418.
The Aged Minister’s solemn appeal to God, and serious address to his people. Being the substance of the tenth and eleventh annual discourse, after the half-century, at Norwich, Nov. 21, 1778, with a dedicatory preface. Benjamin Lord, A.M., Senior Pastor of the first church there (Norwich: Printed by John Trumbull, 1783), 31.