William Gifford in Revolutionary War

Going on the assumption that Hicks Gifford is the father of my g-g-grandfather, Edmund J. Gifford, I will now sally forth through this portal and hope I am not fired upon. This William Gifford, a g-g-grandson of William Gifford of Sandwich, was the father of Hicks Gifford. Although William is not my only Revolutionary War ancestor, his is the only first hand account that I have found. William Gifford testified before Judge Bayliss in 1832 concerning his service in the Revolutionary War for the purposes of obtaining a pension. I have transcribed this below. Other documents include witnesses as to his identity and service and requests for the transfer of his payments to Ohio, where he moved in 1838 to live with his son, William B. Gifford. Interestingly, several of the witnesses’ testimonies were in front of this son, William B. Gifford, a Justice of the Peace. From his “signature” we can see that he was illiterate.

I patched together a synopsis of the battles he fought in. Most of them took place in New Jersey. Although he doesn’t mention all of them, these are the battles that Lippitt’s Rhode Island State Troops fought in from the Fall of 1776 to January 1776. William re-enlisted three more times and served until he married in 1780.

I had to do a bit of searching to understand William’s silence on the Christmas night crossing of the Delaware River to surprise the Hessians at Trenton. Lippitt’s Rhode Island State Troops were under the command of Lt. Col. Cadwallader. Three Colonial forces were to cross that night, Washington’s, Ewing’s and Cadwallader’s.

A little background first. In his deposition, William Gifford claims to have served with Col Lippitt during the first of his four enlistments. At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Christopher Lippitt was chosen Lieutenant Colonel of the Rhode Island regiment and of the minutemen, which defended the Rhode Island ports from British warships. In the fall of 1776 his regiment joined the Continental Army on George Washington’s orders and went to Harlem Heights, New York. This is where Washington’s army had retreated to after the route at Long Island and the silent crossing of the East River to escape the overwhelming British forces. Lippitt commanded a regiment at the Battle of White Plains. 

New Jersey in the Revolutionary War

The Battle of White Plains was fought on October 28, 1776. British General William Howe landed troops in Westchester County, intending to cut off Washington’s escape route and end the war. Alerted to this move, Washington retreated further, establishing a position in the village of White Plains. Howe’s troops drove Washington’s troops from their position and Washington ordered a retreat further north. 

Because of the defeats New York, Washington and his troops were forced to cross the Hudson River and retreat to New Brunswick and then continue on towards Princeton. The British, however, were in close pursuit. Needing a quick escape, Washington ordered all boats within a 75 mile stretch of the Delaware River to be procured in preparation for the retreat over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. This was the first of four “crossings of the Delaware” that would take place over a few days. After all, Washington had to cross the Delaware into Pennsylvania before he could cross back into New Jersey for the Battle of Trenton.

After crossing the river into Pennsylvania, the boats and a 25 mile stretch of the river were guarded so that the British could not follow. Morale in the army was low. Desertions were high and re-enlistments nonexistent. The troops were so poorly provisioned that some did not have shoes and left a trail of blood in the snow.

To compound Washington’s problems, the enlistments of the majority of the militias (including Rhode Island) under his command were due to expire at the end of December and the troops return to their homes. Washington had to do something and quickly. To save his army, Washington devised a plan to cross back over the Delaware River into New Jersey and attack the Hessians, who were fighting for the British, garrisoned at Trenton.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Washington’s plan was to cross the Delaware at three points with a force commanded by Lt. Col. Cadwallader with a Rhode Island regiment, including Lippitt’s, some Pennsylvanians, Delaware militia and two guns, a second force under Brigadier Ewing of militia and the third commanded by himself which would cross the river above Trenton and attack the Hessian garrison in the town. This second crossing is “The Crossing of the Delaware”. And as you can see by the painting, George was on his horse. They also had to take guns and dry powder and more horses on the boats. 

At around 11:00 pm a windy storm began with snow, sleet and rain. The river was icy and the crossing proved dangerous. Two detachments were unable to cross the river.  After successfully crossing his light forces, Cadwallader discovered that river ice prevented crossing his artillery. He then returned the rest of of his column to the Pennsylvania side, including Lippett’s Rhode Islanders. This we know from the diary of Sgt. John Smith. General Ewing was also unable to cross that night. This left Washington and the 2,400 men under his command alone to land on the opposite bank of the river. After reaching the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, these troops marched 9 miles south to Trenton. 

The adverse weather had lead the Hessians to believe that they would be able to spend Christmas day leisurely feasting and getting drunk, which they did. The Hessians had so lowered their guard, thinking they were safe from the American army, that they did not even post a dawn sentry. The Hessian commander Colonel Rahl had been ordered to construct defense works around the town but had not troubled to do so. On the night before the attack Rahl was at dinner when he was brought information that the Americans were approaching. He ignored the message which was found in his pocket after his death.

After their Christmas feast, they slept soundly, while the crossing took place in the early hours of the morning of the 26th. Startled out of their slumber, they were quickly overpowered at daybreak, too hungover and surprised to mount a defense. Washington’s forces caught them off guard and, before the Hessians could resist, they were taken prisoner. 

The Battle of Trenton significantly boosted the Continental Army’s flagging morale, and inspired re-enlistments. Despite the battle’s small numbers, the American victory inspired rebels in the colonies. With the success of the revolution in doubt a week earlier, the army had seemed on the verge of collapse. Appealing to their patriotism and offering a $10 bounty, Washington succeeded in convincing most of those whose enlistments would expire on the 31st to remain for another six weeks.

Then, on the night of January 2, 1777, Washington evacuated his position, circled around General Cornwallis’ army, and went to attack the British garrison at Princeton. Some of the Continental troops were overrun and Washington sent some militia to help them. The militia, on seeing the flight of the troops, also began to flee. Washington rode up with reinforcements and rallied the fleeing militia. He then led the attack on the British troops, driving them back to Trenton.

In Princeton itself, Continentals forced British troops who had taken refuge there to surrender, ending the battle. After the battle, Washington moved his army to Morristown, and the British, with their third defeat in 10 days, evacuated southern New Jersey. With the victory in the Battle of Princeton, morale again rose in the ranks and more men began to enlist in the army. The battle was the last major action of Washington’s winter New Jersey campaign. Washington’s Army was saved to fight again the next Spring.

William Gifford’s testimony for his pension is frustratingly terse, which may be due to his age or to his reluctance to speak of battle. However, I like his description of the method used for thoroughly cleaning a house that had served as a small pox hospital. And he has a habit of falling in company with men of dubious character. My comments, corrections and guesses are in [brackets]. 

State of Massachusetts

County of Bristol } s.s.

On this 30th day of August in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty two, personally appeared in open court before Hedijah Bayliss, Judge of the Court of Probate for the County of Bristol, now sitting, at Dighton in said County of Bristol. William Gifford of Westport in the County of Bristol and State of Massachusetts, aged seventy seven years in November last, who being first duly sworn according to law, doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain[?] fit of the act of Congress passed June 7, 1832.

[I en]tered the service of the United States under the[?] named Officers and served as herein stated.

Firstly That early in the year seventeen hundred and seventy six I enlisted in the service of the United States, at New Port, for one year, I think it was in the month of March, cannot for a certainty tell the day – That I enlisted into a company of soldiers or troops – (they were then called Rhode Island State troops) under the command of Capt. John [Carr]the Lieutenant’s name was Thomas [Noyes] the ensign’s name was [Brenton Bliss] and the Regiment Commanded by Colonel Christopher [Lippitt] the firstp lace that I remember of being stationed after enlistment was at Currentins [Coddington?] Cove or [Coasters?] Harbour, and after staying a while at [Coasters?] Harbour, we were marched to the Island of Conanicut, and after remaining a while at that place, we marched to a place called Kings Bridge in the State of New York, and after remaining a time at Kings Bridge, we was marched to the White Plains, and was at the White Plains at the time of the battle fought there between the Americans and British, after the battle as aforesaid we was marched to a place called Pitts Kill [Peekskill], and there crossed the river, and marched to Princeton and after remaining there a while we was marched back to Pitts Kill and there discharged

I have no recollection of receiving a written discharge, if I did have one it soon got lost. On being discharged as aforesaid I returned home to Tiverton in the State of Rhode Island, being the Town in which I was born and the Town in which I lived until after the Peace Seventeen Hundred and Eighty Three. Some time Since the peace I Moved into Westport in the County of Bristol and State of Massachusetts, and have lived in Westport ever since. I have no record of my age, but one of my sisters keeps a family record, on which my name & birth is recorded, & in frequent conversations with her upon the subject enables me to say I was born in November 1754.

And the said William further declares, that soon after his return from the West, at White Plains & Pitts Kill, he again enlisted into the Army of the United States. (he cannot recollect the day or month but it was early in the year Seventeen Hundred and Seventy Seven thinks it was April) he enlisted at Howlands Ferry in the Town of Tiverton aforesaid into the Company of Captain ChristopherManchester, into what was called fifteen months Service, thinks he was enlisted for fifteen months, in Colonel [Archibald Crary’s] Regiment, after my enlistment as aforesaid we was Quartered at Howland’s Ferry, from the[re] marched to Bristol in the State of Rhode Island, and remaining at Bristol for some time, Capt. Manchester Company in which I belonged was ordered to Popersquash, we went to Popersquash and after remaining there for some time, the small pox broke out among some of the troops and those who were taken sick with the Smallpox was put into an old house on the Island for a Hospital, and after the troops had recovered from the Small pox some of our Company was ordered to go & clean the house, and I remember they gave it a thorough cleaning for they set fire to it and burnt it down 

some time after this I was taken sick, and the sickness increased to such a degree that I was void of common reason, and as I was afterwards informed was carried home, and before I recovered of my sickness as aforesaid the term for which I had enlisted expired and therefore I had no discharge from Capt. Manchester

according to the best evidence I have I was not able to be in the Service again until the Spring of Seventeen Hundred and Seventy nine, when I left home and went to Killingsly in Connecticut I think this was in March 1779 – there I fell in Company with a man, who was drafted to go into the service. (I cannot now recollect the name of the man) but he hired me to take his place, I did take his place and went to New London as a substitute, was rec’d and Served six months, was stationed down below the Town of New London during the Six months aforesaid on the Farm belonging to John D. Sharon. 

After this term of six months had expired and before I engaged in any other business and in the fall of the year Seventeen Hundred and Seventy Nine a man came to me (his name I cannot recollect) and hired me to take his place in the service for three months I agreed with him, took his place as a substitute and went to old Stafford in Connecticut was rec’d as a substitute and served my three months during which time I was stationed at a House belonging to a man by the name of Curtis 

after this last ment’d term of three months had expired I left the Service of the United States – went to Lime in Connecticut and in the month of April 1780 – was married – I cannot recollect the names of any of the Officers that I was under while a substitute in the two last mentioned terms of service and I know of no person now living whose testimony I can procure, who can testify to the two last mentioned Services.

The said William hereby relinquishes every Claim whatever to a pension or anuity except the present and declares that his name is not on the pension Rolls of the agency of any State. 


William X Gifford


Sworn to [???] the day of year aforesaid – 

N. Bayliss, Judge of Probate

Williams testimony is followed by a certificate of the Pension, summary of service, record of pension payments, a request to transfer pension payments from Massachusetts to Ohio, a sworn statement by son William as to the identity of his father William, a letter describing “old gentleman Gifford” as “nearly blind and entirely attenuated”, another pension agent attesting to the fact that Wm Gifford is a pensioner, Thomas Wilcox’s testimony of William Gifford’s service, William Cook’s testimony, William the father attesting to William the son, who is a Justice of the Peace in Ohio, that he is who he says he is, and finally, clerk Pearson swears that Judge Ira Johnson is in fact a Justice of the Peace. With all of that settled, William Gifford received his pension.

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