James McDermott (1758-1859)

As many of us do, during the “golden years,” I was recently contemplating the topic of longevity. In simpler terms – how much longer do I have left to complete all the tasks I have set out for myself? Being a genetic genealogist, I pondered how much effect genetics has on the length of one’s lifespan. I’m relatively healthy; I have no chronic diseases or conditions; I don’t smoke (anymore); I’m not obese (a few pounds overweight, but not too bad), and have no family history of those dreaded “early killers.” And, as would be expected, I started looking at the lifespans of my direct ancestors to get a feel for my potential “genetic” number.

I first looked at a one of my Revolutionary War veteran ancestors –James McDermut, one of my third great grandfathers. I recalled he live a good long time, and I thought that would be good place to start. And, I knew that I had quite a few good DNA matches to him and perhaps I have his longevity genes. James McDermut was born in August 1758, and died in June1859. Wow – almost 101! If I could do that, lets see * * *.

McDermut tombstone
(n.b. The spelling of the surname was changed to McDermott by several of James’ sons.)

The first inkling that I had that James was a Revolutionary War veteran was from a mug book that I came across many years ago. It was the History of Richland County, Ohio. In it was the following: “He was a private soldier in the war of the Revolution, serving the first two years at Fort Duquesne; then marching over the Allegheny Mountains, joining the army of Gen. Washington at Valley Forge, where he suffered through that terrible winter. He was in the battle of Princeton, and all other operations of the army at that period.” Caveat: what you read in a mug book needs to be verified.

So, last year, when I was getting serious about my genealogy, I thought: what better way to demonstrate my research and documentation skills than going through the process of membership in a lineage society. No Mayflower ancestors that I know of, so Sons of the American Revolution, it was. I knew that I had at least fourteen patriot ancestors, through which I could gain admission if I could prove and document the lines.

I could take the easy way out and re-up on my prior admission to C.A.R. through a fourth great-grandfather, Robert Thompson. But I was not very proud of the documentation on that application from more than fifty years ago. I considered my direct paternal line, Ephraim Walters, a fourth great-grandfather – one who lived to be 92. But there was a proof problem on one of the generations there. So, next I looked at James McDermut, a third great grandfather. No proof problems. So next, I need to find proof of his service in the Revolution.

Being armed with my new research skills learned through the Boston University Genealogical Studies Program, I started looking for records of McDermut’s Revolutionary Was service. In a few short moments, I found his Revolutionary War Pension File. Wow, what a treasure-trove of information.

In June 1832, the U.S. Congress passed legislation granting the most liberal veterans’ benefits ever to have been granted. The legislation provided full pay for life for all officers and enlisted men who served at least two years in the Continental Line, state troops or militia, regardless of financial need or disability. Now, mind you, this was more than forty years after the conclusion of the war; however, it is reported that by the end of 1834, there were nearly 28,000 pensioners receiving these benefits.

In this pension application file, is the deposition of James McDermut, himself, setting forth his service. The following is a story of truth being better than fiction; not because the story is any better, but because the story is truly told by the person who lived it, and with far more accuracy and detail.

The mug book said: “[h]e was a private soldier in the war of the Revolution * * *” McDermut says: “the said James McDermut entered the service of the Revolutionary War In the month of June 1777, that he enlisted in the County of North Hampton [Northampton] in the State of Pennsylvania at a place near the Line of the State of New Jersey called ‘Easton.’ That this applicant enlisted under a Captain whose name was ‘Goodman.’ That this applicant enlisted the first of June in the year 1777. * * * That this applicant enlisted and served as an ‘Orderly Sergeant’ in said troops for the whole period of three years to the time of his discharge, in the month of June 1780.”

The mug book says he “serv[ed] the first two years at Fort Duquesne.“ McDermut says: “That this applicant marched from Easton shortly after his enlistment in June 1777 as aforesaid and was commanded by the said Captain ‘Johnson’ and Lieutenant ‘Goss’ and under command of said Col. ‘Craigg [Craig].’ That this applicant was marched into the State of New Jersey to a place near ‘Princeton’ where the troop encamped a few days and rested themselves, and from thence they were again marched into the State of Pennsylvania at a place near Delaware River called the ‘Corell [Coryell] Ferry’ [the Delaware River crossing between New Hope, PA and Lambertville, NJ] near a Flouring Mill where the army encamped for several days. And from thence the troops were ordered down toward Philadelphia, to a place called Germantown.”

“That the troops marched through a part of the State of New Jersey and went down to a place called Col. Houter’s residence in New Jersey near a Meeting House. There the troops encamped a day or two, whence the army were disturbed by the British Troops. That after being so routed by British, the army marched to a place called ‘Harter’s’ Residence, a place a few miles from where the army had been stationed and routed and the troops were immediately ordered to Germantown, where this applicant recollects that the Battle was fought in the early part of the month of October, in the fall after his enlistment.”

The Battle of Germantown, on October 4, 1777 pitted an army of 11,000 Continentals and militia under the command of General George Washington against the 9,000 man British/Hessian army commanded by General William Howe. After the disastrous defeats of the Americans at Paoli and Brandywine, leaving the new country’s capital, Philadelphia defenseless, Washington devised a complex plan to defeat the British before moving to winter quarters.

Washington’s plan involved dividing his army into four columns, with each column attacking the British from a different direction, at night. He hoped the British would be surprised and quickly defeated, much like the Hessians had been at Trenton. The main part of the British army was garrisoned in Germantown, a small village northwest of Philadelphia, for the winter, with only a small contingent stationed in Philadelphia.

There was a camp of Hessians on the high ground to the left (east) of the village; to the right (west) were two brigades of British regulars, a battalion of Light Infantry and a unit of loyalist Americans. And in the center of the village, there were two brigades of British regulars and a brigade of Hessians.

Germantown Battle

At dusk on October 3rd, the Americans began their march toward Germantown from their position sixteen miles to the north. As they marched toward Germantown, they were undetected by the British pickets. However, the advance was slower than planned because of the difficulty of communication in the dark, and by dawn they had not proceeded as far as planned.

James McDermut was likely in the 12th Pennsylvania Regiment, also known as the Northampton and Northumberland Defense Battalion, which was assigned to the 3rd Pennsylvania Brigade, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Conway. This brigade was deployed to the right of the main British army in Germantown. They fought valiantly, but they were forced to retreat after running low on ammunition. The fighting continued until dark on the 4th of October, when the entire American force retreated from the battle.

While the Americans lost this battle, which could have decisively turned the war at this point, the British victory was limited by Howe’s failure to follow up on the victory, and allowing the Americans to escape to their winter quarters at Valley Forge.

The mug book states that McDermut “join[ed] the army of Gen. Washington at Valley Forge, where he suffered through that terrible winter.” What McDermut says is: “[t]hat after this [Battle of Germantown] applicant was marched to a place called ‘Pennipack [Pennypack] Creek,’ where the troops laid for several weeks, and then the army marched again to Trenton in the State of ‘New Jersey’ and were then engaged in pursuing the ‘British’ and ‘Hessians’ at several intervals.” Pennypack Mill was a place between Germantown and Valley Forge where Washington and his army camped before the Battle of White Marsh on December 5-8, 1777, and prior to arriving at Valley Forge for the winter.

Nowhere in McDermut’s deposition does he mention the winter at Valley Forge. While it is likely that some of his unit, the 12th Pennsylvania Regiment was camped at Valley Forge, McDermut fails to mention either that or the Battle at White Marsh. Consequently, absent evidence to the contrary, we must assume that McDermut’s deposition testimony was accurate; that he wasn’t at Valley Forge, but encamped near Trenton, New Jersey, instead.

Trenton had been the site of an important victory by the Americans one year earlier, when Washington and the Americans crossed the Delaware and attacked the Hessian troops holding Trenton. Slightly more than a week later, the Americans won the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. The result of these two battles was that the British were forced out of most of New Jersey, creating a British enclave around New Brunswick in early 1777.

The mug book says: “He was in the battle of Princeton, and all other operations of the army at that period.” Well, we know that he wasn’t at Princeton, since the Battle of Princeton was fought January 3, 1777, and that occurred about five months prior to McDermut’s enlistment. What McDermut says about early 1778 was: “and [we] went to a place called “Monmouth” in the State of “New Jersey,” where this applicant was in the latter part of the month of June.”

The Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey was fought on June 28, 1778, in Monmouth County, New Jersey. The American army, under Washington’s command, attacked the rear of the British force that was withdrawing to New York City. The battle raged throughout the day, in stifling heat, until darkness forced a halt to the engagement. Washington expected to resume the fight in the morning; however, after midnight, the British, under the command of Sir Henry Clinton, withdrew from the battlefield, and resumed their retreat to New York, giving the Americans a nominal victory.

Monmouth Battle

Here is McDermut’s rendition of the battle: “about the twenty-eighth of said month [June] in the year 1778, in the Battle or Engagement at said place [Monmouth] that this applicant well recollects the suffering and distress of himself and the soldiers who fought on that day. That the weather was ‘exceptionally hot,’ that shortly after the Battle great numbers of the men went and drank ‘cold water’ and by it killed themselves. That the sufferings from the ‘dust’ and ‘smoke’ of the Battle and the heat of the weather can hardly be described. That this applicant was, during the Battle placed under command of a Col. ‘Seeley.’ That he recollects that Col. Seeley during the Engagement took a very active and conspicuous part. That he gave orders during the action, and that General ‘Forman’ also took a very active part in the Battle. That they several times passed the line in the hottest of the fight and Gen’l ‘Forman’ several times ‘cursed’ and ‘swore’ that the damned British should be whipt. That they rode past this line where this applicant could hear and see them. That Gen’l ‘Forman’ constantly encouraged the troops to rush in and the British bullets would hurt no man. That this applicant recollects that Col. Seeley rode a white or a ‘grey horse’ during the engagement. That the said Col. Seeley and Gen’l Forman were very brave and active officers. That after the engagement at that place this applicant was ordered together with the Regiment to which he belonged to protect the defenseless inhabitants against the audacity of the British and Hessians. That the detachment was engaged in embarrassing the march of the British and Hessians. That great numbers of the Hessians or ‘Dutchmen’ as they were called deserted from the British and were protected by the Americans.”

Monmouth was the last major battle in the north, and thereafter, the war moved south, and McDermut’s deposition reflects that, saying that after this battle:
“he then marched to a place in the State of New Jersey to a place called at that time ‘Middle Hook’ [Somerset County, New Jersey on the North bank of the Raritan, 8 miles NNW of New Brunswick, NJ] and was stationed there for some time. That whilst laying there, a Regiment of Riflemen were stationed there. That they were ordered from Middle Hook into the State of Pennsylvania, at or near the line of that state in the Delaware River, called the Ferry of ‘Corell [Coryell]’ and laid at the Flouring Mill at said Ferry. And the troops after remaining there for several weeks were then taken down to a place called ‘Pitts Town; or ‘Quaker Town;’ in the State of New Jersey, where this applicant was discharged by his officers. [Pittstown and Quakertown are two villages one mile apart, in Hunterdon County, NJ.] That during said time I was not engaged in any civil pursuits. That Captain ‘Johnson’ under whom this applicant fought and served gave this applicant a written discharge signed by himself.

What a wonderful story – one that lives on in the actual words of James McDermut, who departed this life nearly 160 years ago. The lesson from this exercise is to always verify any story you find in a “mug book.” The original source evidence is often far more revealing and in genealogy, its always more fun to find the truth.

McDermut War
credit: Google Maps

© Sumner Walters: 14 Jan 2018
#52 Ancestors

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