Tuesday, February 25, 2014


By Jesse Halsey

My great great grandfather, for whom I am named, was a Revolutionary soldier and officer. When he heard of the Battle of Lexington he and his brother took the king bolt out of the one horse farm wagon, rigged a seat on the two front wheels, and drove an old horse ten miles from his home to Sag Harbor. Here, with other men, they rowed in a whale boat across Long Island Sound to New London, walked to Boston, arriving in time for the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Off and on for the eight years of the war, he was with the army, once at least on Washington’s staff. My grandfather, who heard his grandfather repeat the wartime stories in turn told them to my father and to his own grandchildren, who have rehearsed them to me time and again. My children have heard them from me (ad nauseam, they used to think). But we have had the advantage of the other generations of being able, with our automobile, to visit most of the scenes of grandfather’s activity during the Revolution.

Two miles from where he was born was where we were so fortunate as to spend the summer down on the Atlantic seaboard. The home site is now a cornfield. When I was a boy some of the foundation of the old house and the apple trees were standing. Not a mile away in the village cemetery rest his mortal remains. Some years ago the government furnished an appropriate tombstone and seventy of his descendents placed a similar marble slab at his wife’s grave.

My family, there are seven of us, has trekked to many Revolutionary sites, with an especial interest to those connected with grandfather. We have stood on Bunker Hill, crossed the river and climbed the belfry tower of the old North church, visited the public square in Cambridge, where Washington took command (grandfather was present). We have crossed Long Island Sound more than once, but not in a whale boat. Opposite New London stands Groton monument where grandfather’s brother, Captain Henry, was killed when Benedict Arnold, the traitor, burned the town. That hot June day in 1779, when Washington attached Clinton’s retreating army, grandfather was captain on the general staff. He heard Washington, with an oath, order Charles Lee, another traitor, off the field. He was wounded in the engagement and likely taken to the old Tennant church, which was used as a hospital. One wonders if he drank from Molly Pitcher’s well. He carried the effects of his wound to his death and in his old age used a crutch.

He had, so the story goes, an ardent Tory for a neighbor. In a violent discussion that developed one day, the neighbor maintained that never in America could woolen goods be made the equal of the British products. Grandfather maintained that the American output was equal to the British. A violent altercation developed and the Tory called the patriot a liar, and the patriot, with his crutch, knocked the Tory down and sat astride him until noon, when his son came home from the field and encouraged his father to desist (decamp). He lived to a good old age. He outlived his children, but, fortunately, not his grandchildren, and his grandson, who was my grandfather, told these tales to his grandchildren.

The old days of horse and buggy, of sandy roads and crooked lanes, are gone in many parts of the country. Cars fly through with some terminus in view likely, but their occupants seeing little along the way. The highways are numbered and in most places conspicuously marked and only when a detour sign confronts one in the middle of the road and cannot be disregarded does one take a back road.

Yet, on those less frequented ways are some of the most interesting and beautiful spots that are to be found. They escape the eye of the average tourist. I, for one, miss the Blue Book of a decade ago that gave back roads, the names of lakes and brooks and best of all the historic footnotes that made the journey interesting.

En route to French Lick for the cure, you pass Salem, Indiana. Not one in a thousand knows that here John Hay was born. Oh for an intelligent, informed, and historically minded cartographer! Seeing the Green Mountains and enjoying is in no way hindered as one passes through Brandon to find there a monument to Stephen A Douglas who was born there in the village. Or to turn aside at Bennington and climb the hill to the old town and pay one’s respect to the spirits of the “boys who there resisted Bourgoin’s advance” memorialized in the shaft that rises on the hill. In the same old village one is interested to find that William Lloyd Garrison edited his first abolition sheet. It is off the main highway a little that one finds the Saratoga battle monument near Schuylerville, or the monument to Benedict Arnold’s boot and wounded leg. One must leave the express highway by two miles to sight the Princeton battlefield and house where General Mercer died. A circuit of the Wilderness battlefield is made by using several less frequented back roads. To find Monticello, one leaves the main highway by four miles and lives for a brief hour with Jefferson in the country. That section of the main concreted highway down east where I grew up occasionally affords a glimpse of the ocean and the dunes. To those who know the back roads, pond and bay and sandy strips open in quick succession and the booming surf is ever in one’s ears. But the red lines on the map give no hint of such access.

On the back roads through the Adirondacks one finds the sleeping place of John Brown’s body. Off the trunkline near Kinderhook is hidden the grave of Martin Van Buren and a mile or so away, his old home Lindenwall. Nearby is the site of Ichabod Crane’s schoolhouse and the home of Katrina Van Tassel. One would never guess it as he flies through on Highway No. 9.

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