George Washington Papers

General Orders, 29 September 1776

General Orders

Head Quarters, Harlem Heights, Sept: 29th 1776.

Parole: Fairfield.Countersign: Leyden.

Ensigns Fosdick and Chipman, of Col. Webb’s Regiment but lately in a Detachment of Rangers under Capt. Holmes, having been tried by a General Court Martial whereof Col: Weedon was President for “Abusive language to their officers—Mutiny and Disobedience of orders”—They are convicted of giving abusive language to their Officers, and ordered to be reprimanded for their Conduct, before the officers of Col. Webb’s Regiment.1

The General approves the sentence and orders them to join their regiment, that it may be carried into execution.

As there is the greatest appearance of bad Weather, the General directs and begs, that the Officers would have a special Care of the Arms and Ammunition, wherever their is a convenient Cover for either—Bell-Tents, or painted Tents to have the Arms & Ammunition put into them.

He also directs that the several Brigades as soon as the Weather admits, be marched down to their Alarm Posts, as fixed in the Orders of the 26th that the troops may know how to repair to them and defend them to the best advantage—And that this be repeated, until both Officers and Men, are well acquainted with the ground and the posts.

From some discoveries made yesterday, there is reason to think, the Enemy meditate a speedy and general Attack; it is therefore of great consequence, that we should be well prepar’d in all respects to meet it.

A Court Martial consisting of the following Members, are to meet to morrow at ten O’Clock, at the White House near Head Quarters, for the Trial of Capt: Weisner & Capt. Scott for “Cowardice and Misbehaviour in the Attack made upon Montresor’s Island on the morning of the 23rd Instant”—Brigadier Genl Bell President[.] Col. Magaw. Col. Holman. Col. Newcomb. Lt Col. Cadwallader. Lt Col. Brodhead. Lt Col. Russell. Major Putnam. Major Hopewell. Major Mott. Capt. Beatty. Capt. Winship. Capt: Gillet. Members. All Evidences are directed to be punctual in their attendance.2

Varick transcript, DLC:GW; Df, in Joseph Reed’s writing, DNA: RG 93. , Orderly Books, vol. 15. The two passwords in the draft are not in Reed’s writing.

1Thomas Updike Fosdick and Benoni Shipman had been tried the previous day, when Lt. Ephraim Cleveland testified that on the night of 26 Sept.: “I went home to the house where all of us who are officers in the Ranging service quarter, and, sitting at supper, a dispute soon arose between some of the officers, when Ensigns Fosdick and Chipman were very abusive to Lieutenant Holmes, and Chipman damned them, told them they would not obey their commands, and said they would turn out their company against the rest of the party, and immediately went in, and came out of their room with their guns. We disarmed them and confined them to their room.” That account was supported by Lt. Lemuel Holmes and three other officers (see the court-martial proceedings, 28 Sept., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:589–90; an incomplete copy of those proceedings is in DLC:GW).

Thomas Updike Fosdick (1754–1811) of Hartford joined Col. Charles Webb’s 19th Continental Regiment as a sergeant on 1 Jan. 1776 and became an ensign on 11 July. Benoni Shipman (d. 1820) of New Haven, who had served as a private in the 3d Connecticut Regiment during 1775, became sergeant major of Webb’s regiment on 1 Jan. 1776 and was commissioned an ensign on 11 August. Lemuel Holmes (1737–1822) of Surry, N.H., was a first lieutenant in Col. Paul Dudley Sargent’s Massachusetts regiment during 1775 and continued as lieutenant after 1 Jan. 1776 in Sargent’s 16th Continental Regiment. Although Holmes was acting as captain of the rangers at this time, he apparently was not promoted to that rank until 15 October. Fosdick and Holmes were captured at Fort Washington on 16 November. Shipman became a second lieutenant in Webb’s new 2d Connecticut Regiment on 1 Jan. 1777. He was promoted to first lieutenant in May 1777 and captain-lieutenant in June 1778 and served until 1 Jan. 1781.

2The members of this court-martial were Brig. Gen. Rezin Beall, Col. Robert Magaw, Col. Jonathan Holman, Col. Silas Newcomb, Lt. Col. Lambert Cadwalader (d. 1823) of the 3d Pennsylvania Regiment, Lt. Col. Daniel Brodhead, Lt. Col. Giles Russell (1729–1779) of Col. Comfort Sage’s regiment of Connecticut militia levies, Maj. Ezra Putnam (1729–1811) of the 27th Continental Regiment, Maj. William Hopewell of the 4th Maryland Regiment of flying camp troops, Maj. Edward Mott (c.1735–p.1790) of Col. Fisher Gay’s regiment of Connecticut militia levies, Capt. John Beatty (1749–1826) of the 5th Pennsylvania Regiment, Capt. Ebenezer Winship, and Capt. Jonah Gillet, Jr., of Colonel Gay’s regiment. Captains Alexander Graydon of the 3d Pennsylvania Regiment and Christopher Stuart of the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment replaced Brodhead and Gillet when the court-martial convened on 30 Sept., and Colonel Holman did not attend.

John Wisner, a captain in Col. Isaac Nicoll’s regiment in the New York militia levies, and John Budd Scott, a captain in the 2d New Jersey Regiment, each commanded a boat loaded with troops that failed to land on Montresor’s Island during the attack, leaving Lt. Michael Jackson and the men of his boat unsupported on the beach (see General Orders, 24 Sept., and note 2).

At Wisner’s trial, which lasted two days from 30 Sept. to 1 Oct., Adj. George Marsden of the 7th Continental Regiment, who had been in Wisner’s boat on 23 Sept., testified that “we had got about a Mile from the Place we set off at, when Capt. Wisner observed that he was certain from Information that there was five Times the Number of the Enemy on the Island that we thought for, & that we were led into a plaguy Scrape; That a Ship lay near the Island which would rake us with Grape Shot, some of the men heard this & it was soon known throughout the Boat.” When “a scattering fire began from the Enemy,” Marsden says, Wisner “immediately squatted down in the bottom of the Boat, the firing increasing the Prisoner [Wisner] said the Enemy had A Number of Boats & that we should be cut off & beg’d for God’s sake that we would land on a Point of Land on Morisania Side. This was said loud & must have been heard by the Men. The Boats soon run foul of each other, & so much Confusion ensued that we were obliged to land at Morisania.” By that time Jackson’s boat was out of sight, and the men in Wisner’s boat could not be persuaded to proceed. Capt. James Eldredge, a sergeant, a corporal, and two privates supported Marsden’s account. The testimony that seven privates, including four from Wisner’s company, gave for the defense was weak and inconclusive (see the court-martial proceedings for 30 Sept.—1 Oct. in DLC:GW).

On 1 Oct. the court convicted Wisner of the charges and sentenced him to be cashiered. GW thought, however, that Wisner should have been sentenced to death, and on 5 Oct. Joseph Reed wrote Beall on behalf of GW requesting that the court reconsider Wisner’s case. GW, Reed writes, “has directed me . . . to remark that the discretionary power of the Court seems to have been exercised rather from some motive of compassion than any circumstance appearing on the face of the proceedings. He would therefore wish the Court to point out the circumstances which have induced them to mitigate a sentence which seems to have been generally expected by the army. Had the Court, upon the contrariety of evidence, acquitted the prisoner, the General apprehends the same consequences would not have remitted to the publick, and he should have acquiesced in the opinion, though it differed from his own. But to convict an officer of the crime of cowardice, and in a case where the enterprise failed on that account, where several brave men fell because they were unsupported, and to impose a less punishment than death, he is very apprehensive will discourage both officers and men, and render it, hereafter, difficult, if not impossible, to make an exemplary punishment, and especially in the case of a common soldier, who will suppose distinctions are made by officers in the case of an officer” (Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:895).

Beall and the other members of the court replied to Reed on 6 Oct.: “As no new Testimony is mentioned to be offered to the Court, they conceive the Judgment they have given in the Case, consistant with their Duty as Officers and the Rules for the Government of the Army.

“You, Sir, must be sensible of the very great Diversity between written Evidence, and that given viva Voce—The Manner, the Behaviour and a Number of Circumstances in the Conduct of a Witness, which may enforce Credit, Doubt or Discredit before a Court, cannot possibly be reduced to Writing, so as to enable a Reader to judge with any Degree of Certainty or Precision; upon those Principles we contend we are the best, the sole Judges.

“If his Excellency is of Opinion from the written Testimony that the Miscarriage of that unfortunate Enterprize was owing principally to Captain Weisner’s Misbehaviour before the Enemy, it far exceeds the Amount of the Evidence in the Minds of the Court.

“The only Evidence which stands uncontradicted, is that relative to the Prisoner’s Conduct before the Firing from the Enemy began, and even here the Testimony of some of the Witnesses suffered much in Point of Credibility by their after Testimony—on this Ground the Court proceeded in finding the Prisoner guilty under the 17th of the Articles of War, where a Species of Cowardice is plainly implied, different from that in the 27th—his Life was in Question on this Article—The Testimony was contradictory—on the Part of the States, the Witnesses produced were considered interested—their Lives in some Measure were at Stake—throwing the Fault on some one or more Persons might be essential to their own Justification and Preservation” (DLC:GW).

Not until 31 Oct. did GW approve the sentence cashiering Wisner (see General Orders, that date). No record of John Budd Scott’s trial has been found. Heitman, Register, 485, says that he was cashiered on 2 Nov. and “joined the enemy.” Heath writes in his memoirs, however, that only one captain was cashiered for misbehavior in the attack on Montresor’s Island (see Wilson, Heath’s Memoirs description begins Rufus Rockwell Wilson, ed. Heath’s Memoirs of the American War. 1798. Reprint. New York, 1904. description ends , 76).

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