Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War

William McLaughlin - July 23, 2017

Washington, Gates, and even Francis Marion (the swamp fox) are well-known leaders on the battlefields of the American War of Independence, but there were plenty of heroes whose tales are not told in history class and others whose heroic deeds were overshadowed by other events. Here we will look at some of the lesser-known heroes of the war, though those who have studied the war will likely know many of these names and their deeds.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
Samuel Whittemore in his “prime”. Pinterest

Samuel Whittemore

One of the first heroes of the war, Samuel Whittemore was also the oldest. An astounding 78 at the start of the Revolutionary War, Whittemore had a long military career before the war broke out. He fought in the French and Indian Wars and helped capture the strategic Fortress of Louisbourg twice over his years of service and though the evidence is scarce, he seems to have retired in his 60’s as a captain of Dragoons.

Immediately after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first engagements of the war, the British marched back to Boston, dealing with skirmish Americans all the way. Whittemore was working his fields when he noticed the British marching close to his land. A British relief force had been sent to speed the main force’s retreat and was fast approaching Whittemore’s town.

Not about to stand for any Brits marching through his land, Whittemore loaded his musket and pistols and set up to ambush the Brits. As they came close, he shot and killed one with his rifle and then drew his pistols and killed two more men. Then, at 78 years old, Samuel Whittemore drew his sword and charged the masses of soldiers.

Whittemore didn’t make it far before he was shot in the face and bayonetted 13 times. As the British cleared the area Whittemore’s friends found him in a pool of his own blood, trying to reload his musket. Whittemore was brought to the doctor and pronounced a lost cause. His loved ones waited for Samuel to die, but he just didn’t die.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
A monument to Whittemore’s deeds, though the dates are a bit off. Wikipedia

After a lengthy recovery, Whittemore fully recovered. He had horrible scarring across his face from the gunshot but would otherwise live a normal life for another 20 years. Whitmore would live to see the end of the war, the ratifying of the Constitution and even the beginnings of the quintessential sport of baseball. We know little of Whittemore’s specific military history, but his brave stand at the beginning of the war inspired thousands and certainly qualifies him as a hero of the revolution.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War

Benedict Arnold

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be about unsung heroes? Benedict Arnold was the opposite of a hero, a traitor to a new nation that he had signed an oath of loyalty to. But that was just one act in Arnold’s American career full of heroic deeds on the hopeful American’s behalf.

Even at the young age of 14 Benedict wanted to fight in the French and Indian War, but his mother put a stop to his enlistment. Just two years later he enlisted in the militia but saw no action. A self-starter, Arnold rebuilt his family’s wealth as a business owner and was reasonably wealthy at the outbreak of the revolution, he even won a duel against a rowdy British captain during his travels.

Early in the war, Arnold co-led an attack on Fort Ticonderoga and the Patriots could take the garrison by surprise and won with no casualties. Arnold also had command of what would prove to be a disastrous mission to take Quebec. Marching through the wilds of Maine, Arnold fought against the walls of Quebec and was badly wounded in the leg in a failed assault.

In the Battle of Ridgefield, Arnold’s horse was shot from under him and landed on his leg, after intense fighting for his life, Arnold escaped the battle with his life. He fought twice at Saratoga, despite quarreling with General Gates and losing his command after the first battle. He still rode into the second battle of Saratoga and bravely rallied the Patriot troops at near-suicidal risk to himself. He was again wounded in the leg, more seriously this time, and would walk with a cane the rest of his life.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
Arnold’s boot memorial. Wikipedia

Despite his heroics, and he was widely praised for his role in the victory, Arnold had to see general Gates get most of the glory and medals for winning the battle. This perceived lack of appreciation, combined with growing debt accumulated through the war, led to Arnold finally deciding to turn to the British cause. Benedict Arnold is a synonym for traitor today, but you can still find an unnamed statue of a foot at the Saratoga National Historical Park honoring Arnold’s sacrifice without actually naming the notorious traitor.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
Bissell was part of the worst of the American defeats and many of the key victories in addition to being a spy. Wikipedia

Daniel Bissell

A soldier and a spy, Bissell was a hero on the battlefield and lived every day as a spy with the risk of being found and hanged. Bissell joined the army as a corporal and fought with Washington. He was present at the battles of White Plains, Trenton, and Monmouth.

Practically every soldier under Washington at the Battle of Trenton deserved a medal; the march to the battle claimed the lives of two men and left others with frostbite. Two years later, Bissell fought in nearly opposite conditions at Monmouth. Over 100-degree weather had men dying from heat stroke during the brutal, but inconclusive, battle. During the battle, Bissell was shot in the face, sustaining a serious scar to his cheek but still surviving to fight again.

But Bissell did not fight again, instead, he was given the far more dangerous job of being a spy in New York. Of all the British forces to join as a spy, Bissell joined Benedict Arnold’s loyalist army. Initially planned as a shorter stay, Bissell became seriously ill and lost his opportunity to desert back to American forces. For over a year, Bissell served as a quartermaster for the British and kept track of everything he could think of.

When he was finally able to make his escape, Bissell was arrested by American forces as only Washington and a few others had knowledge of Bissell’s espionage. After pleading his captors to contact Washington, Bissell was recognized and freed. Bissell spent days redrawing maps of British positions from memory and writing down every last important detail he could think of.

For risking his life on the battlefield and within the enemy’s armies, Bissell was awarded the Badge of Military Merit by George Washington. Bissell continued to serve throughout the war and in the American Indian wars after the revolution. A true patriot, Bissell never thought to stay with the British despite serving with them for 13 long months.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
John Paul Jones the Pirate. Wikipedia

John Paul Jones

As one of the “fathers of the American Navy”, one would think that John Paul Jones would be far from an unsung or unknown hero. However, many people have never heard of the brave sailor, possibly due to Jones’s reputation as a pirate or the fact that he ended his career working for Catherine II of Russia, making his service as an American patriot more difficult to celebrate than Washington or Adams as they followed their revolutionary service with service as presidents.

John Paul Jones perhaps deserves some of his uneasy reputation; his birth name was simply John Paul as the “Jones” was added later in life as he fled from the law. When a twist of fate killed off the captain and first mate of the ship he was serving on with yellow fever, Jones found himself a captain. On one of his earliest voyages, Jones flogged a man who later died. The man happened to be the son of an influential Scotsman, and the repercussions would forever stain Jones’ reputation.

When Jones finally got an American command, he would be one of the first to hoist an American flag over a navy vessel. Sailing from Canada to the Bahamas, Jones fought small battles and largely disrupted British shipping. Capturing British ships was a massive economic swing for the Americans as they now had more ships and whatever supplies that they could find on the captured ships.

Eventually, Jones was sent to disrupt shipping around Britain, with support from the French. With a few ships at his disposal, Jones raided British lands and shipping as best he could. After a few failures, Jones and crew ran into a British escort force and a small but symbolic naval battle erupted. British pride was at stake as the most powerful navy had to prove that they could keep their seas safe.

Jones, commanding aboard the 42-gun converted merchant ship the Bonhomme Richard, faced off against a 44-gun fifth-rate, the Serapis. Outgunned, the Bonhomme Richard was torn to shreds and hundreds killed or wounded in the mostly one-on-one duel as other ships skirmished around them. Jones and his men put up quite a fight and nearly severed the mast of the Serapis.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War
The action between the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard. Wikipedia

After long stretches of fighting the Bonhomme Richard was close to sinking and filled with dead and dying, Jones apparently among them as he was slumped over a railing. As the captain of the Serapis called to surrender, Jones perked up, as he had only been resting, and said “I have not yet begun to fight”, with several possible variations but the same intent.

Jones and the Bonhomme Richard held together and even beat back a Serapis boarding party until other American ships could bombard the Serapis, now entangled with the Bonhomme Richard. The battle was over soon after with the Serapis captured and the crew of the Bonhomme Richard working around the clock to pump water out. By all accounts, the Bonhomme Richard should have sunk or surrendered, but they persevered and proved that the American navy, even when acting similar to pirates, were not ones to be trifled with.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War

Peter Francisco

The Giant of the Revolution, also known as the Virginian Hercules, Peter Francisco certainly lived up to his nicknames. In an age where the average man was about 5’7, Francisco stood tall at 6’8 and 260 pounds, at the age of 16. He put his size to work as a blacksmith until the war broke out.

Francisco was famed for his ability to fight through battles despite injuries that could kill lesser men. In the fall of 1777, Francisco fought in several skirmishes such as the Battle of the Brandywine. He fought well in each engagement but had been so injured that he spent two weeks in hospitals before rejoining the war. At the Battle of Monmouth, he was shot clean through his thigh.

Though this took longer to recover from, Francisco got back to the fighting at Cowpens. At the assault on Stony Point outpost, Francisco was part of a hand-picked assault force and was the second man through the walls. While breaching the walls, Francisco suffered a long and deep gash on his stomach, but fought on, killing several men and capturing the British flag.

During one American retreat, Francisco noticed the American artillerymen abandoned a valuable cannon as it was stuck in the mud. Not wanting it to go to waste he freed the half-ton cannon and towed it to safety, reportedly taking the main cannon off and slinging it over his shoulder like a log.

Francisco would become most famous for something that was an accidental coincidence. after being wounded yet again, this time a bayonet to the thigh, Francisco was sent home to recuperate. On his way, he volunteered to spy on some of Tarleton’s raiders, the feared Dragoon Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton, the same Tarleton represented so villainously in the Patriot film.

Patriots of Independence: 5 Unsung Heroes of The Revolutionary War

The riders approached Francisco and demanded that he hand over his valuables. Francisco refused and pulled the sword away from one of the men who reached towards him. Now armed, Francisco killed 1-3 of the men and wounded the other 8 or so men. Only one man was able to get back to his horse and ride off, the others ran on foot and allowed Francisco to capture 8 Dragoon horses.

Francisco standing up to Tarleton’s dragoons, who had a reputation for butchery, made Francisco more famous than he already was. He was a hero of the Revolution and when the war ended he decided to go back to primary school and earn his basic education. Despite his many wounds, Peter Francisco lived into his seventies. Though he died poor, the Virginia legislature adjourned for the day and hundreds attended the funeral of the Giant of Virginia.