The Healey Library at the University of Massachusetts Boston defines primary sources as “immediate, first-hand documents of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it.” As students of history, many of us make frequent use of primary sources: muster rolls, pay rolls, returns, letters, maps, etc. Generally speaking, primary sources are our best means of obtaining contemporary period information, but can we automatically trust everything from the past at face value? A brief example of why we ought to corroborate primary sources is as follows. After the Storming of Stony Point, Commodore Sir George Collier wrote in his journal that “it was said that they [the American troops] had taken the precaution to kill every dog two days before that was within some miles round the post, to prevent their approach being discovered.” While Collier’s words qualify as a primary source, we know from other primary sources such as pension applications, Gen. Anthony Wayne’s report to George Washington, and Wayne’s official instructions that at no point did such a slaughter of dogs take place, nor was it even suggested.
Pension applications, while meeting the criteria for being a primary source in that they are “first-hand documents,” lack the important characteristic of being “immediate.” Written decades after the events they recount, they often prove to be muddled and inaccurate compared to things written closer in time to actual events. An fine example of a pension applicationthat ought to be taken with a grain of salt is the application of one William Babcock.
On August 8, 1854, William Babcock appeared before the Court of Common Pleas in Sussex County, New Jersey. He came to apply for a Revolutionary War pension, one he seemingly would have been eligible for when Congress passed an act for it back in 1832, yet Babcock waited an additional twenty-two years for reasons unknown. It was rare for Revolutionary War soldiers to apply for pensions in the 1850s, as many of them had been long dead; Babcock was applying at the age of 100. According to Babcock, “he was born on the day of his grandfather’s death, and that the inscription upon the tomb of his grandfather recites that he died on the second day of January .” At the ripe age of 100, it was no surprise that Babcock “saith that by reason of extreme old age and the consequent loss of memory he is . . . unable to tell the precise length of his service in the regular army but according to the best of his recollections he served not less than five years as a private.” He said he “entered into the service of the United States . . . serving first place in the militia and then enlisted in the regular service . . . for five years or during the war.” He enlisted in Haverstraw, New York, where he was living at the time and “after his enlistment he was stationed at Haverstraw aforesaid, under Captain Vanderberry of the United States Infantry belonging to a regiment commanded by Colonel Burns of the division of General Anthony Wayne.” Babcock continued that he served in the militia “under Captains Hutchinson and Garner or Gardner, and that he was regularly discharged at Haverstraw after Peace was declared, and received his. . . certificate of discharge, which was afterwards destroyed by the burning of his dwelling.” Finally, he said that he testified for the pension applications of three men who “served in the same Regiment,” and then he gave a description of his activities during the Storming of Stony Point in July 1779. It is an interesting pension application—primarily because every word of it is wrong.
Let us begin with identifying the regiment that Babcock served in, since at no point does he specify it. He said he “served in the same Regiment” as the three men whom he testified for: Nashu [Nathan] Youman, James Conklin, and Henry Gibson. Nathan Youman claimed in his pension application to have served in Col. Frederick Weissenfel’s Regiment of Levies, although he only is listed as a soldier in that regiment in James A. Roberts’ New York in the Revolution as a Colony and State (1897), not in a known primary source.A man named Babcock did testify for him in his pension papers, but his name was John, not William. As for Conklin and Gibson, neither applied for a pension, and neither of these names were ever in any unit from New York, militia, levies, or regular regiments—in short, they don’t exist in military records.
Since Babcock made frequent references to Haverstraw, New York, it would follow that he might have been in the 2nd Orange County Militia, also called Hay’s Regiment of Militia, but he does not appear on the unit’s rolls, nor does Roberts’ New York in the Revolution suggest him being remotely associated with the unit. So, what about the reference to being “in the militia under Captains Hutchinson and Garner or Gardner?” In the Continental Army, one man with the name Hutchinson that held the rank of captain was Israel Hutchinson from Massachusetts, but as Babcock was a New Yorker, we can rule him out. Even the closest sounding name of someone who was a captain, Amos Hutchins of the 3rd New York Regiment, could not have been Babcock’s officer as Babcock was never listed as having been with that regiment. Likewise, no Garners appear as officers and most Gardners that were captains were from out of state, except Jacob Gardiner, who served in the Tryon County, New York militia, over 100 miles from Haverstraw.
Well, what about “Captain Vanderberry” and “Colonel Burns of the division of General Wayne?” No officer by the name of Vanderberry served in the American War for Independence, but there was a Captain Henry Vanderburgh; just like Hutchins, he served in the New York line, but again Babcock’s name is absent from any surviving lists of those units. Neither did a Colonel Burns serve during the war. In fact, we know the four colonels who served in Wayne’s Light Infantry Corps: Christian Febiger, Richard Butler, Return Jonathan Meigs, and Rufus Putnam. Even if Babcock was referring to Wayne’s temporary command of the 1st and 2nd Pennsylvania Brigades in 1777–78, no Colonel Burns was with him.
Before we examine Babcock’s claims about the Storming of Stony Point, it should be noted that as he appears on no regular or militia rolls, it is extraordinarily unlikely that he was a member of Wayne’s Light Corps, especially as members of the militia did not participate in the action. Nonetheless, he does mention some details relating to one Pompey or Pomp Lamb, a local enslaved man whose roll in the battle according to popular retellings of the action in the early nineteenth century has already been disproven. Babcock said that “the only battle he served in was at the taking of Stony Point from the British [and] that the night previous to the taking of the fort, the American troops were stationed near.” The night before the attack was the evening of July 14, 1779. If he was referring to the Light Infantry, there is no indication that they had any sizable detachment in the area that night—they were still at Fort Montgomery, about six miles north of Stony Point. According to Babcock, the troops “were in danger of being surrounded and destroyed, but they were warned of their danger by a negro man named Pompey, belonging to one Captain Lamb, and that as they escaped they saw in the moonlight files of British soldiers on both sides of them.” No such incident is recorded in contemporary accounts, so what Babcock is relating is unknown, although he had more to say about Pompey Lamb. The next night (that of the battle), “Pomp piloted the American troops through a course of cedars and brush-wood, and they passed the sentries and fired upon the British troops before being discovered, and then charged with bayonet and took the fort.” Again, Pompey Lamb, who was real and was listed on muster rolls, never claimed any of the things attributed to him, nor is he mentioned in any account of the battle, British or American.
After his deposition, William Babcock was asked a few questions. One of them was, “was General Wayne present in person [at Stony Point]?” Babcock’s answer was “He was not . . . but was stationed some many miles distant.” This we know to be false, as Wayne not only was at the head of the south column (Febiger’s) immediately in the rear of Lieutenant ColonelDe Fleury’s vanguard, but he was famously wounded in the temple while in the thick of the action. Babcock was also asked about his actions at Stony Point, to which he recalled that he entered the fort under his “Captain Vanderberry.” Babcock claimed “the next day this deponent escorted the prisoners to a place called Little York, and was then marched back to Stony Point.” Little York is usually a reference to Yorktown, Virginia, but Babcock said it was “somewhere in New Jersey. I think near Trenton. There was a guardhouse there and a great many prisoners.” There is no York in New Jersey, but there is a York, Pennsylvania, not too distant from Lancaster and Philadelphia, where many British prisoners from Stony Point ended up, so it’s not clear where Babcock referred to. There was a possibility that militia took part in escorting the prisoners, but to have New York militia cross state lines and go as far as Trenton, so far away from their home territory, seems highly unlikely.
William Babcock’s pension application does not represent the majority of such documents. Yet, it is an excellent example of why even primary sources must be looked at with a critical lens. That a source is primary is not an automatic indication of its veracity. Continue hunting for pensions, muster rolls, and letters; just ensure that what you find is in fact accurate.
Primary Sources: A Research Guide, University of Massachusetts Boston, www.umb.libguides.com/PrimarySources/secondary; Extract from the Journal of Commodore George Collier in Henry P. Johnston, The Storming of Stony Point on the Hudson, Midnight July 15, 1779: It’s Importance in the Light of Unpublished Documents (New York: DaCapo Press, 1971), 134; for more on the myths and legends relating to the Storming of Stony Point see: Michael J. F. Sheehan, “The Mythology of Stony Point,” Journal of the American Revolution(November 3, 2016), allthingsliberty.com/2016/11/mythology-stony-point/.
Pension Application of William Babcock, R.346, www.fold3.com/image/11060543. Beginning in 1777, enlistments into the Continental Army (the Regular service), were either for three years or the duration of the war. Militia were required to serve locally as long as they were physically able or could pay for a substitute, generally up until the age of sixty, regardless of years previously served.
Ibid; Pension Application of Nathan Youman, S.45.485, www.fold3.com/image/28231920; James A. Roberts, New York in the Revolution as a Colony and State, Volume I (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Company, 1904), 74.
Francis Bernard Heitman, Historical Register of the Officers of the Continental Army During the War of the Revolution, April, 1775 to December, 1783 (Washington, DC: The Rare Book Shop Publishing Company, 1914), 311-2, 242.
Ibid, 555; Enclosure: Plan of Attack, July 15, 1779, Founders Online, www.founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0416-0002.
Pension Application of William Babcock; for location of Light Infantry on July 14, 1779: Anthony Wayne to George Washington, July 14, 1779, Founder Online, www.founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-21-02-0405. The only troops that would have been in the vicinity of British held Stony Point on July 14, 1779, would have been elements of Maj. Henry Lee III’s Legion, who had been assisting Washington and Wayne in reconnaissance. However, there is no known close call like Babcock described between British troops and Lee’s Legion on that date.