The status of Thomas Ditson, Jr., as a minor hero of the American Revolution has more to do with the perception that he was an average, unpretentious farmer caught in the wrong place at the wrong time than with specific displays of courage. A deeper look at his activities reveals years of service first as a Massachusetts minuteman and then in the Continental Army as a sergeant—a position of authority and responsibility—during some of the war’s toughest battles. At the heart of his story is how his ancestors’ determination to build their own America rose inside him in the face of British opposition.
Ditson descended from Puritans who had escaped British persecution by fleeing England during the Great Migration to America from 1620 to 1650. Unlike immigrants to southern colonies who often came to America as fortune seekers, indentured servants, or as the penalty for committing crimes, as well as those forced to migrate through enslavement, the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony were reasonably well off financially. They were well-educated and traveled in families along with proven leaders, came by the thousands, and were a dominant force in the New World until about 1740.
Several of Ditson’s ancestors helped found towns in the colony, such as Billerica and Woburn. A great, great grandmother, Winifred Henchman Holman, was accused and acquitted of being a witch in 1659. In 1700, one of Thomas’s grandfathers, Hugh Ditson, bought 250 acres near Billerica for sixty-six pounds and ten shillings. On this land Hugh’s heirs thrived. Hugh’s son Thomas Ditson, Sr., married Elizabeth Lawrence, and they had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood. Thomas, Jr., and his twin sister Sarah were toward the end of this string of children, born on April 9, 1741. Sarah died two years later. The youngest Ditson, Samuel, was born in 1750. Thomas, Jr., married Elisabeth Blanchard on June 18, 1761. For the next fourteen years, he and Elisabeth worked on building their lives together, including having five children (eventually they would have four more).
Before 1768, when large numbers of Royal troops arrived in Boston to enforce the heavy import taxes the British government had imposed, local politics in towns like Billerica tended to focus on decades-old issues related to land holdings and the founding of new towns. The debate over Billerica’s future lasted forty-two years, ending in 1779. As disagreements with British officials increased, Billerica town meetings passed resolutions criticizing new taxes and instructing townspeople to “buy local,” but they had little practical impact. Even so, news of growing tensions in Boston hummed in the background of everyday life. In 1774 at a Billerica town meeting, citizens agreed to send a representative to Boston to serve on the committee tasked with organizing the colony’s response to the excesses of British rule.
Records of Billerica civic activity and other accounts of the time do not show Ditson or his family as having any particular interest in political or military matters. But a Billerica town meeting in early March 1775 voted “to raise a company of 50 minute men, who should meet weekly for training and be paid one half shilling for every half days training, except this day was the same as the general training day.” The minutemen were required “to be ready at a minute’s warning with a fortnight’s provision, and ammunition and arms.” It was time for Thomas Ditson to equip himself.
Boston merchant John Andrews noted in late 1774 that it was not unusual for countrymen to go to Boston to acquire firelocks; he wrote, “In regard to the people coming in arm’d, I never understood that they did: but as to their going out so is very common, for every man in the country not possess’d of a firelock makes it a point to procure one, so that I suppose for a month past, or more, not a day has pass’d, but a hundred or more are carried out of town by ‘em.” Some of these weapons were purchased from British soldiers who took the risk of selling government property. On February 4, 1775, British officer Lt. Frederick Mackenzie recorded, “A Soldier of the 4th Reg who was tried a few days ago for disposing of Arms to the towns people, has been found guilty and sentenced to receive 500 lashes. A Serjeant and two Soldiers of the 38th Reg tried for the same crime, have been acquitted.”
On March 8, 1775, Ditson went to Boston to buy a firelock, a trip that corresponded with his intention to join Billerica’s minutemen. He might have already had a firelock—colonial law required men of Ditson’s age, color, and circumstances to belong to a militia—but he might have wanted a better one as war seemed to grow near. He might have wanted to acquire one for his son and namesake, Thomas Ditson III, knowing that Thomas III would be the oldest male at the Billerica farm if Ditson were away fighting with the minutemen. Upon arriving in Boston, Thomas made his interest in purchasing a firelock known to various townsmen, one of whom directed him to Sgt. John Clancy (whose name Ditson recalled as McClenchy) of the 47th Regiment of Foot, who took Ditson to a house that was serving as a barracks for the 47th. Ditson bargained with Clancy for a greatcoat, for which he paid two pistareens. He stowed the coat in a bag and shifted the negotiations to the purchase of a firelock.
Clancy and Ditson each provided lengthy written accounts of their encounter, which diverge on key points. Ditson, in an “Oath of Truth” deposition, said he offered four dollars for a “very fine piece” and would also pay one dollar and a half for an “old rusty piece.” He claimed that when he expressed concern about carrying the weapons out of Boston, Clancy assured him he would have no problem getting past the sentry at the ferry because they were friends. Ditson said that his reluctance to close the deal provoked insistent cajoling from Clancy. When he reluctantly agreed, Ditson claimed that Clancy took his money but then called in troops who took him captive and held him overnight at the guardhouse at Foster’s Wharf.
According to Clancy’s sworn deposition, after he and Ditson closed on the sale of a coat and waistcoat, Ditson offered to buy Clancy a drink. As they were sharing a quart of beer, Ditson asked in a whisper if Clancy might have a firelock for sale. Ditson reportedly eagerly seized upon Clancy’s offer that they go to the barracks to discuss weapons. He said Ditson offered to buy as many firelocks as the sergeant could get for him. He said that Ditson offered him any sum of money if he would desert the army and go to Billerica with him, promising to make him a gentleman if he showed competence in the requisite skills. Clancy described Ditson as bold and scheming regarding acquiring more guns and sneaking them across British checkpoints.
About what happened the next morning, there is no dispute: Lt. Col. Thomas Nesbit, commander of the 47th Regiment, organized a ritual punishment for Ditson. Nesbit had joined the army in 1751 at the age of nineteen and risen rapidly in rank, becoming a lieutenant colonel in 1762 and taking command of the 47th Regiment four years later. The regiment had served in America during the French and Indian War, and in 1773 was sent there again, arriving in Amboy, New Jersey, in 1773. In October 1774 the regiment moved to Boston, becoming part of the increasing garrison in that city.
On the morning of March 9, a sergeant appeared at the guard house and told Ditson to strip to his breeches. More men followed carrying a bucket of tar and a feather pillow. An officer standing in the doorway ordered the men to tar and feather Ditson from head to toe, including his pants. After he was tarred and feathered, a soldier read a placard to him and then hung it around his neck. According to Ditson’s oath, it proclaimed, “American Liberty or Democracy exemplified in a villain who attempted to incite one of the soldiers of his Majesty’s 47th Regiment to desert and take up arms with rebels against his King and country.”
Ditson was ordered to sit on a chair fastened to a two-wheeled cart. About forty to fifty men of the regiment, armed with muskets and fixed bayonets and led by Lieutenant Colonel Nesbit, pushed Ditson through the streets of Boston while jeering and singing insults. The fifes and drums of the 47th played the tune of Yankee Doodle as the soldiers sang a verse composed for the occasion:
Yankee Doodle came to town,
For to buy a firelock,
We will tar and feather him,
And so we will John Hancock.
And so we will John Hancock.
As a growing crowd pressed closer to the procession, Nesbit ordered the soldiers to stop and to load their muskets. He apparently then concluded that he had made his point to the citizenry and that further parading could trigger a second Boston Massacre. He ordered the prisoner’s release, and a sergeant told Ditson that he was free to go.
A history of the episode states that “Col. Nesbit directed a soldier to sell one of the country-men a musket.” Lieutenant Mackenzie, who was in another regiment in Boston, wrote of Ditson’s detention and punishment, “This matter was done with the knowledge of the Officers of the [47th] regiment.” He further commented, “Arms of all kinds are so much sought after by the Country people, that they use every means of procuring them; and have been successful amongst the Soldiers, several of whom have been induced to dispose of Arms, or such parts of Arms, as they could come at. Perhaps this transaction may deter the Country fellows from the like practices in future.”
Even small acts of arrogance by military forces perceived to be occupiers can cause significant consequences. The crowd saw Ditson as one of their own and that any one of them could easily be the next Yankee Doodle to suffer similar humiliation. As word of Ditson’s suffering traveled through Massachusetts and the other colonies, Patriots coopted the derisive Yankee Doodle into an anthem for the fight against the British. Patriot leadership capitalized on the affair, using it as another grievance with which to poke the British and fuel revolutionary sentiment. Samuel Adams expressed outrage at Ditson’s treatment and the lack of a response from Gen. Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts and commander of the British forces in the colonies. Billerica selectmen sent a letter to Gage condemning the attack, a letter later approved by the Provincial Congress.
The experience with the British reaffirmed Ditson’s ardor as a Patriot. Upon his return from Boston, he acquired a musket and trained with the Billerica minutemen. When Patriot forces discovered on April 18, 1775, that British forces had set out for Concord to destroy the colonists’ weapons stockpile there, the Ditson farm was among the first in Billerica to receive the call to arms.
On April 19, 1775, Ditson and his fellow Massachusetts Minutemen engaged the British in battle at Meriam’s Corner in Concord, a clash that current Revolutionary War enthusiasts in Billerica refer to as Ditson’s revenge. At Meriam’s Corner, a day of skirmishes grew into a sixteen-mile-long battle that marked the beginning of the war. Ditson fought again at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775.
In January 1776 in Billerica, Capt. Joseph Pettingill enlisted Thomas Ditson in the Massachusetts Line in the 26th Continental Regiment. Ditson received the rank of sergeant, probably as a result of his service as a member of the minutemen. He served a year in the 26th Regiment under the command of Col. Loammi Baldwin, who would become known as the father of American civil engineering.
The second half of 1776 would prove to be hard and disappointing for Ditson and hisregiment. At the Battle of Long Island on August 27, the British defeated the Americans and gained access to the City of New York, which they held for the duration of the war. In troop deployment and combat, it was the largest battle of the war. In the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, both sides claimed victory. The repulse of British troops boosted morale in the American ranks and marked the first success of the war for the army directly under Gen. George Washington’s command. About a month later the Battle of White Plains, on October 26, forced Washington to retreat to the west.
Washington eventually crossed the Hudson River at Peekskill, New York, with most of his army, leaving New England regiments, including Baldwin’s, there to guard the key depot point and transportation hub for the Continental Army to shuttle troops from New England into New York and then across the river to New Jersey. Baldwin wrote a long letter to his wife detailing his experiences in November and December 1776. For November 3, 1776, he wrote:
Marchd from Peekskill for Kings Ferry. Very rainy all day. Crossed the river just before night. Pitched our tents in N. Jersey by the side of the mountains. Took my lodging in a common tent upon the wet ground very late, there being no house to go to. In the night the rain increased and the flood come down the mountains and ran in torrents among and through our tents and allmost washd them away. I had no bed nor blanket except a thin piece of druggit in form of a small blanket. All the marching Army under General Lee reced orders at Peekskill not to take anything with them but one shirt and one pr. hose more than what they commonly wore.
It was at Peekskill in 1777 that Ditson“lost the sight of one eye by the small pox,” according to his sworn statement in June 1820 before Samuel Dana, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Court of Common Pleas. Massachusetts statesman John Adams noted in 1776, “The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together.” Although it was too late for Ditson, General Washington in 1777 imposed a health care revolution on his troops by requiring them to be vaccinated against the disease.
Ditson was discharged at Peekskill, but upon his return to Billerica, he reenlisted in the Continental Army for another three years. He stated in his pension application that he had served in Col. Rufus Putnam’s 19th Continental Regiment as a sergeant under John Lewis and later served under Capt. Daniel Shays—who would later lead “Shays Rebellion,” a catalyst for replacing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.
By 1777, Thomas III had developed his own ambitions to join the conflict, enlisting at age of fifteen as a fifer in Capt. Ezra Lunts’ company of Col. David Henley’s Regiment, one of the sixteen Additional Regiments that the Continental Congress permitted Washington to organize and control directly rather than by the authority of the state governments. His service in Henley’s Regiment included spending the winter at Valley Forge. 
Also by 1777, the Continental Congress and the Continental Army recognized a growing number of casualties and recruitment shortfalls demanded creative measures to address the Army’s manpower needs—a realization that would shape the course of Thomas Ditson’s military service. Both France and Britain had established units that employed wounded and disabled soldiers in tasks away from the front lines, and Congress agreed to do the same. They “Resolved, That a corps of invalids be formed . . . to be employed in garrisons, and for guards in cities and other places, where magazines or arsenals, or hospitals are placed . . . That some officers from this corps be constantly employed in the recruiting service in the neighbourhood of the places they shall be stationed in.”
Washington’s General Order of August 6, 1777, instructed that soldiers with incapacities be medically examined “and if fit for garrison duty, they are not to be discharged, but transferred to the Invalid-Corps.” As early as September 1777, Ditson was detailed to the Corps of Invalids and ordered to return to Billerica to assist in recruitment duties. On August 23, 1779, he received detailed guidance on how to perform the duties of the non-commissioned officer commanding the guard on the Kingston Guard Ship, which was holding British prisoners.
Most of Ditson’s assignments in the Corps of Invalids appear to have kept him in the greater Boston area, enabling him to stay involved in family life. When his father died in 1778, Thomas bought his brother Samuel’s share of the Ditson homestead. In January 1779, Elisabeth gave birth to daughter Alice.
Payroll records indicate that Ditson served in the Corps of Invalids until he was returned to Putnam’s regiment in January 1780 and then discharged in Boston as an Invalid at the end of his three-year tour of duty in February 1780. In 1782, Ditson’s son Thomas III went missing at sea, never to be found. In 1784 Thomas and Elizabeth moved out of Billerica to Ashby, Massachusetts, along with seven children under the age of eighteen. Their ninth child, Nancy, was born in 1787. Six of the Ditson children would have families of their own, but none of them took over the farm in Billerica. Elisabeth died in Boston in 1812.
In April 1818 Ditson filed for a Revolutionary pension stating that he was “in indigent circumstances and is, by reason of age, unable to support himself.” He documented the value of his personal possessions at $3.12. He began receiving a pension of eight dollars per month—the amount a sergeant would earn monthly in 1783—in February 1819 along with a retroactive payment of $86.66. He remarried in 1819 to Prudence Douglass, age forty-seven, of New Hampshire. On September 2, 1828, Thomas Ditson died probably in Mason, New Hampshire. His gravesite is unknown.
“Yankee Doodle” is not the only work commemorating Ditson’s ordeal. John Trumbull, a highly regarded American poet and Patriot of the time, wrote an epic poem called “McFingal” satirizing the British actions in the colonies and during the Revolution that contains the following verse:
“When colonel Nesbitt, thro’ the town,
In triumph bore the country-clown,
Oh what a glorious work to sing,
The veteran troops of the British king,
Adventuring for the heroic laurel,
With bag of feathers and tar-barrel!
And Nesbit marching at the side,
Great executioner and proud,
Like hangman high on Holborn road.”
Claire Hopley, “The Puritan migration—Albion’s seed sets sail,” British Heritage Travel, britishheritage.com/history/puritan-migration-albions-sets-sail.
H. A. Hazen, History of Billerica, Massachusetts: With a Genealogical Register (United States: A. Williams and Company, 1883), 40-41
Massachusetts, U.S. Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2495/images/41254_265468-00061?pId=81308174.
F. Mackenzie, A British fusilier in revolutionary Boston: being the diary of Lieutenant Frederick Mackenzie, adjutant of the Royal Welch fusiliers, January 5-April 30, 1775, with a letter describing his voyage to America, Allen French, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard university press 1926), 31.
Deposition of Thomas Ditson, Northern Illinois Digital Library, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A105673.
Deposition of John Clancey, a private Soldier in his Majesty’s 47th Regiment of Foot, in Boston, Thomas Gage Papers, American Series V126, William L. Clements Library.
C. M. Rosenberg, Losing America, Conquering India: Lord Cornwallis and the Remaking of the British Empire (United States: McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers), 12.
Billerica Colonial Minutemen, The Yankee Doodle Story, bcmm.us/yankee-doodle-story/.
Celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the incorporation of Billerica, Massachusetts, May 29th, 1855: including the proceedings of the committee, address, poem, and other exercises of the occasion; with an appendix (Lowell, MA: S.J. Varney), www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/billerica-mass/celebration-of-the-two-hundredth-anniversary-of-the-incorporation-of-billerica–lli/1-celebration-of-the-two-hundredth-anniversary-of-the-incorporation-of-billerica–lli.shtml.
Samuel Adams to R H Lee, Northern Illinois Digital Library, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A87195.
Remonstrance Presented by The Selectmen of Billerica to His Excellency General Gage, March 16, 1775, Northern Illinois Digital Library, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A88669; Letter to the Selectmen of Billerica, Northern Illinois Digital Library, digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A104432.
Ditson Timeline, Billerica Public Library, billericalibrary.org/local-history/collections/people/ditson-timeline/.
Ditson Revolutionary War Pension Application, www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1995/images/MIUSA1775D_135402-00387?usePUB=true&_phsrc=xnH58099&usePUBJs=true&pId=17254.
Mike Virgintino, “Preserving Peekskill Revolutionary War Battle Site,” October 2016, patch.com/new-york/peekskill/preserving-peekskill-revolutionary-war-battle-.
Loammi Baldwin to Mary Baldwin, http://sites.rootsweb.com/~nbstdavi/baldwin1776.html.
National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/george-washington-beat-smallpox-epidemic-with-controversial-inoculations.
Massachusetts, U.S. Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2495/images/41254_265468-00352?pId=81318918.
So far, no definitive evidence proves that this second Thomas Ditson from Massachusetts in the Continental Army is the son of our subject here, but Massachusetts birth records show that Thomas and Elizabeth did have a son named Thomas who was born in 1762. Genealogical research narrows the options to Ditson’s son because there were no other Thomas Ditsons from Massachusetts at that time who were old enough—or young enough—to serve. The eldest Thomas Ditson—Thomas Ditson, Sr.—died before the end of Thomas-the-fife-player’s military service.
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875; Journals of the Continental Congress, Friday, June 20, 1777, memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00827)):#0080112.
B.Rostker, “The American System of Providing for the Wounded Evolves,” Providing for the Casualties of War: The American Experience Through World War II(RAND Corporation, 2013), 57–74.
Ditson Revolutionary War Pension Application; Ditson Official Claim as Invalid, Billerica Public Library, billericalibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/ditsoninvalid_00001.pdf.
US Pension Roll of 1835, www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/60514/images/pensionroll1835i-002265?pId=19879.
Massachusetts, U.S., Town and Vital Records, 1620-1988, www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2495/images/40904_263664__0016-00099?pId=70794186.
Really great following of a figure that had previously appeared only briefly for most of us never to be seen again.
One quick note, Washington ordered inoculation not vaccination. Different medical procedure with the same goal.