On the afternoon of September 6, 1777, Colonel Jonathan Moulton of Hampton received orders to ready his regiment of citizen soldiers to march to Bennington, Vermont, where they would place themselves under the command of the intrepid General John Stark. Since his promotion to commander of the New Hampshire Third Regiment of Militia two years ago—at a time when he and his family were still quarantined in their mansion house by the outbreak of smallpox that had killed his wife Abigail—it had been Moulton’s responsibility to guard the seacoast south of Portsmouth. Other than spotting a few ships, his men had little to do. Now, with the seemingly unstoppable British army marching south toward Albany with a plan to seize control of the Hudson Valley, all that was about to change. In less than two weeks the Continentals and British would clash at Freeman’s Farm, just south of the village of Saratoga, New York. It was not a decisive action, but it forced British General Burgoyne to dig in and wait for much-needed reinforcements and supplies.
In charge of New Hampshire’s war effort was the Exeter-based Committee of Safety. Under pressure to provide troops to halt the British advance, the Committee authorized Moulton’s staff officer, 61-year-old Lt. Colonel Abraham Drake of North Hampton, to form his own regiment. While it may have been the only choice, still it was a good one. Drake was a former cavalry officer in the French and Indian War; by his first wife he was brother in law to New Hampshire President Meshech Weare; his regimental surgeon was Dr. Levi Dearborn, the cousin of Major Henry Dearborn, one of the future heroes of the Revolution; and his company captain, Moses Leavitt of North Hampton, would go on to become a general in the state militia. Also serving with Drake were six Hampton men, including Adjutant Nathaniel Batchelder and Quartermaster Thomas Leavitt.
In early September Drake’s regiment marched to Bennington, where they would come under the command of General William Whipple, whose own orders were to place himself under the command of General Gates of the Continental Army at Saratoga.
Colonel Moulton’s regiment set out for Bennington at the end of September. With the 51-year-old Moulton was his son Josiah, serving as adjutant, Captain John Dearborn of North Hampton (the brother of Major Henry Dearborn), Captain William Prescott of Hampton Falls, two lieutenants, four sergeants, four corporals, a drummer, a fifer, and 39 privates. Although Moulton’s command encompassed Hampton, North Hampton, Hampton Falls, Seabrook, Kensington, and South Hampton, the majority of his present force was drawn from the towns of Hampton and Hampton Falls.
Camp Now or Never
By the time Drake’s regiment arrived at the American encampment near Saratoga—dubbed “Camp Now or Never” by Colonel Alexander Scammell of the 3rd New Hampshire Continentals—the total patriot force had swelled to over 12,000 men, while the British force had dwindled to under 7,000. Separated by less than two miles, the two armies played a waiting game. After the realization dawned on Burgoyne that reinforcements were not coming, on the afternoon of October seventh he broke the stalemate by launching an attack on the Americans’ left wing.
Now attached to the brigade of General Learned, Drake’s regiment formed up at the center of the battlefield to support the Continental line. Colonel Moulton’s regiment was still with Stark, somewhere on the east side of the Hudson River. After six hours of chaotic fighting the British pulled back, the Americans moved forward, and in the days to come Stark’s militias crossed the Hudson to shut the door on a British retreat.
Ten days and numerous negotiations later, the British surrendered their arms. The Seacoast militia regiments lined up with the Americans, muskets shouldered and bayonets fixed, to witness the Revolution’s first capitulation by a British general. To the defeated troops trudging by, militia officers like Moulton and Drake, who had fought without proper uniforms, appeared to them as prosperous businessmen in want of clean clothes.
Escorted by General Whipple and under guard, the British army marched to Cambridge. Burgoyne was eventually allowed to return to England, but his army would remain imprisoned in Massachusetts and Virginia until the end of the war.
At his headquarters in Saratoga, General Gates sat down to pen a letter to his wife about his victory. “If Old England is not by this lesson taught humility,” he wrote, “then she is an obstinate old slut, bent upon her ruin.”
Colonel Drake was ordered downriver to New Windsor, where his regiment received its Continental pay and mustered out in mid-December. While one of his four companies lost nearly half its men to desertion after Saratoga, Moses Leavitt’s company returned to the seacoast with a full complement of soldiers. Colonel Moulton’s regiment went directly home and mustered out on October 30, 1777, receiving State militia pay only. Their only casualty had been the loss of rank by a lieutenant, whom Moulton had busted to private.
In Paris, the American commissioners Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were finally in the catbird seat, and when the British prime minister’s agent came calling to broker a secret deal to end the war, they politely declined. Soon after, France formally recognized American independence and took up sides against Britain. Saratoga had turned the tide to victory, and the citizen soldiers of the New Hampshire seacoast could be proud of their part in it.
Originally published in the Hampton Union, February 23, 2018.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. “Hampton History Matters,” a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market. Contact Cheryl at email@example.com or through her website lassitergang.com.