Seth Pomeroy: The Forgotten General

On the morning of June 16, 1775 the exhausted colonel was home in Northampton, Massachusetts receiving a much needed respite. It would not last long. An urgent messenger arrived from Boston that morning with a message from Israel Putnam indicating that the colonial forces were going to take control of the heights around Charlestown.

Relieved the British soldiers had not attacked yet, he took stock of the situation but made sure to give possession of his horse to one of his assistants. Grateful for the task it had accomplished he told the man that the horse was, "too valuable an animal to be shot." Upon reaching the fortifications on Breed's Hill the troops gave a shout of welcome and delight, a man of his experience and reputation emboldened the nervous militia. Israel Putnam, surprised to see his comrade, embraced him and exclaimed, "You here Pomeroy? God! I believe a cannon would wake you up if you slept in the grave!"The colonel knew what this meant: a battle would result from such a provocation by the militia. He also knew what he had to do. Immediately preparing a horse for the trip, the sixty nine year old soldier started at noon for the extensive journey to Boston. Riding hard and pushing his horse he traveled through the Massachusetts countryside towards Boston. Briefly stopping twice to obtain a fresh horse and rest his achy bones, he rode all throughout the night and into the morning. He had covered three quarters of Massachusetts on horseback in about twenty four hours, dwarfing the ride made by Paul Revere. Getting closer to Boston he could hear the cannon fire and finally arrived on scene at two in the afternoon.

The colonel denied repeated requests to take general command, he had arrived to assist in the battle and he planned on doing just that, he would not accept any authority at this late stage. The long trip had worn him out and he took up his position on the rail fence at the base of the hill with Colonel Stark and the militia from New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the militia behind the fence as they waited for the approaching British columns. Using his homemade, thirty year old musket, he fired into the approaching British infantry.

Helping direct the volleys toward the oncoming British line he was instrumental in the elimination of multiple officers, adding to the confusion in the British ranks. Despite having vast experience and commanding troops at various forts and battles he stood with the militia and fought by their side. The men surrounding him were farmers, merchants and laborers. The colonel was primarily a blacksmith but also performed other assorted tasks. In the heat of the battle, the colonel stood with the rank and file of the colonies. He did not think he was any better than them but rather they shared one common trait: their united sense of duty. He was in many ways the typical New England militia officer but his service and character would distinguish him among his peers. He was Seth Pomeroy.[1]

Why study the life of Seth Pomeroy beyond the innate interest of learning about another colonial figure in the eighteenth century? While his personal story is interesting, his tale is better understood in the context of his time. Pomeroy lived in the decades preceding the American Revolution. He was part of a group of men who were instrumental in influencing the events of the early United States but who did not live to see the dream of independence become a reality. The morals and values espoused by men like Pomeroy would influence the founding fathers. If men of Pomeroy's age were the forgotten generation, then he is their forgotten general.

Seth Pomeroy was born on May 20, 1706 in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. The Pomeroy surname dated back to the time of William of Normandy, when a Pomeroy knight fought for William at the Battle of Hastings. Seth Pomeroy's father was Ebenezer Pomeroy, a major in the militia, and his mother was Sarah King. His grandfather, Medad Pomeroy, and grandmother, Experience Woodward, were the first family to move into Northampton. Medad was a blacksmith, gunsmith and armorer and his son and grandson would follow in that same practice.[2]

The family tradition and cultural norm of the time dictated that Seth was a member of the local militia from a young age. Throughout his life he would embrace adventure but never seek it out in a reckless fashion as many young people tend to do. At the age of twenty four he traveled down to New York and he would later travel to Connecticut with his wife when such long trips were rare.[3]

In his adolescence he would grow to reach six feet tall and in his adulthood he would have a lean yet muscular build. Not only would he become an expert smith he also become an accurate shot with the same weapons he would create. He became a skilled hunter and in one day killed a bear, dear and wolf. He spent much of his childhood learning the trades of his paternal descendants. As a blacksmith, armorer and gunsmith Seth Pomeroy was asked to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. He would commonly mend broken chains, rings, spikes and hooks as well making nails, bells, plows and axes among other various farming equipment. He charged the most money for shoeing a horse or an ox and even pulled the occasional tooth. Like many of the time period, he was a man of many talents. [4]

He was well known as the most competent gunsmith in western Massachusetts receiving requests not only from farmers and militiamen but also from the local Native American tribes. During his life Pomeroy would interact with the Native American population throughout New England. During his military career he would be both friend and foe with Native American warriors. One descendant of Seth Pomeroy once described his relationship with Native Americans during peacetime, "He was the Indians' friend, and they sought him to settle their difficulties, and always found a welcome at his house."[5]

King George's War

Pomeroy would see his first combat in King George's War. King George's War is the name given to the military operations in North America during the War of the Austrian Succession. King George's War lasted from 1744 to 1748 and saw the British fighting against the allied forces of France and Spain. In 1744 Pomeroy was thirty eight years old with a growing family.

On January 23, 1743, a year before the official start of hostilities between England and France brought war to the continent, Pomeroy was commissioned as a Captain of a company of snowshoe men. Governor William Shirley had the idea of fitting out militia men with snowshoes to be ready at a moments notice to pursue and defend against Native American raids. During the winter, the Native Americans would conduct hit and run raids on defenseless villages and towns and disappear into the woods using snowshoes. Shirley created ten companies of fifty men each to compose the snowshoe militia. The snowshoe company never was officially organized and on August 31, 1743 Pomeroy received a commission as an ensign in the militia: his career as a militia officer had begun.[6]

Once war had officially commenced the colonists looked to target one of the French possessions that had caused them the most consternation: the fortress at Louisbourg. Started in 1720, it took twenty years to complete and being the only French naval station on the eastern coast was seen as a French threat to English shipping in the Newfoundland area. Stone walls thirty feet high surrounded the fort with 250 cannons lining its ramparts. The opportunity to attack presented itself when the French foolishly released English prisoners who had been held within the fort. Their intelligence along with the colonial patriotism sweeping New England led to the attack.[7]

Despite having a wife and seven kids at home, one of whom was only nine months old, Pomeroy wanted to be part of the mission. In fact, Pomeroy was part of the expedition force that would attempt to take Louisbourg. Troops and supplies from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined with ships and provisions from Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were to make the voyage. Overall command would go to Sir William Pepperell. Lacking any contingent from the regular British military, it was an ambitious mission which consisted entirely of colonial forces.

Remarkably, it is a mission that would end with the French surrender of the fortress. Throughout his journey Pomeroy would keep a journal of events in a pocket sized parchment covered book measuring 3.5 inches by 6 inches. His eyewitness account has added to the historic understanding of the siege of Louisbourg. Pomeroy would primarily be occupied with engineering matters, which for him meant helping ready cannons and guns. As was his occupation in Northampton he used his knowledge of armaments to a great degree in his military life. After a relatively easy landing by the English troops two miles from the fortress, Pomeroy was ordered to supervise about twenty smiths in cleaning and repairing the cannon touch holes the French had attempted to spike. [8]

Pomeroy wrote of the conditions that often led to more deaths than fighting in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Disease and sickness spread throughout military camps unabated in many instances and the siege at Louisbourg was no different. As the English troops neared the fortress much of the army became sick. Pomeroy himself reported that the water near their camp was unsanitary and the terrain was marshy and damp.

Even as the expedition reached the middle of June, Pomeroy commented, "The nights are very cold; a frost some nights & ice of considerable thickness."[9] The pleasant days were never as hot as in New England and as for Pomeroy himself, he remained healthy in the beginning of the expedition except for a bad headache that lasted six days but finally broke. It would be a harbinger of what was to come for him. [10]

As the colonial lines crept closer to the fort, Pomeroy took command of the troops in the trenches near the west gate in the afternoon of June 4. Overnight the French fired cannons and charged the trench with projectiles consisting of a mix of bolts, nails and other small, dangerous pieces of iron. Some of the projectiles very nearly hit Pomeroy in the head. Another cannonade also nearly took Pomeroy's life as the shots exploded all around him. That night a French deserter left the city and surrendered to Pomeroy. The Frenchmen would give important intelligence to the English commanders. Pomeroy was relieved by another regiment the next morning. He had survived his first brush with death but he would be tested again. [11]

Pomeroy followed whatever orders were given to him with speed and efficiency. Besides plying his trade as a smith and commanding troops in the trenches he also helped move the sick and injured to a new hospital tent that was being set up a half mile from its original location. After the fort capitulated he was one of the officers in charge of guarding the camps ammunition stores. [12]

The French surrendered the mighty fort on June 17. Following the surrender the weather changed dramatically. What had been relatively clear skies and cool weather for the weeks preceding capitulation turned into consistent cloud cover and rain.

The change in weather also changed the experience of Pomeroy. He would fall very ill, something that was to be repeated in his life. The horrid conditions of the eighteenth century combined with his overexertion in executing his duties led him to succumb to sickness. On June 26 he started to become ill and in the next few days he was not eating and his conditioned worsened. He was dehydrated, feverish and was stricken with diarrhea and a constant headache. Only adding to his illness, the rain seeped through the tent making his bed moist and rendering it difficult to sleep. He was bled and the fever broke. His bed was transported to private quarters to speed recovery.

By July 3 he would start to feel better but he still remained frail with a weak appetite. His spirits were lifted when the ships started back for Boston but even that didn't agree with him. He was sea sick the entire first day on board and did not eat for two days.[13]

Despite his ailments Pomeroy remained optimistic, a trait he would carry throughout his life. Overjoyed to have taken the fort, he was relieved to be on his way home. Unlike many men of the time period, Pomeroy would not have been a natural seaman. His calling was to remain on land. Although on the voyage home he went fishing and observed whales following the ship, he rejoiced upon seeing land at Cape Ann in Massachusetts Bay. [14]

After he had arrived home Pomeroy reflected upon the siege in his journal. His thoughts have helped historians understand the battle and give us a first hand account of what the officers on the ground thought. Among the many obvious reasons for victory he wrote a good deal about the weather. For the period before surrender the weather held up rather well and very few inclement days were recorded. However, once the French capitulated the weather turned to a constant downpour of rain and heavy winds. [15]

It is after Louisbourg that we witness the first indication of the esteem in which Pomeroy was held. Already well known in western Massachusetts he gained additional notoriety following the siege at Louisbourg. He was one of the pallbearers at a Lieutenant's funeral and even Governor Shirley had written, "Major Pomroy's having served in the late expedition, & behaved well (by all that ever I could hear)." He demonstrated calmness under fire and was respected by the rank and file of the militia. His desire for victory did not go unnoticed either. He was not an idle participant and during the siege he had wished to "Date a letter from Louisbourg." Besides helping transport the hospital, he was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the men once commenting, "3 men wounded but I hope not mortal." His concern for the soldiers was reciprocated by their respect. [16]

Following the Louisbourg expedition Pomeroy was commissioned a major on February 24, 1744. For the rest of King George's War he was tasked with relieving frontier garrisons and assisting in the defense against Native American raids. He was scheduled to be part of an intercolonial attempt to conquer Canada, but the mission was aborted before it materialized. In February of 1747 personal tragedy struck him as his wife gave birth to their eighth child, a stillborn.

At one point he was in command of Fort Massachusetts and led scouting expeditions searching for Native Americans. The war ended quietly for him and when news of peace reached the colonies he went home to return to civilian life. To the anger of many colonials, the fortress at Louisbourg was returned to French possession in exchange for land in India in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. [17]

The French and Indian War

By the time Pomeroy had reached the age of forty eight he had eight children, the youngest of whom was five. He would be called upon once again by his colony to participate in another attack on a French fort. France and England were once again engaged in a war that would eventually become global and include almost all major European powers. Known as the Seven Years' War, the North American theater of operations is commonly referred to as the French and Indian War. Lasting from 1754 to 1763 it would dramatically change the balance of power in North America and have a lasting impact on Seth Pomeroy's life.

The plan was to attack the French fort at Crown Point at the southern edge of Lake Champlain in upstate New York. A combined force of over 4,000 men from New England and New York commanded by General William Johnson were to travel up the Hudson River, march overland fifteen miles to Lake George and then down Lake George to Lake Champlain where Crown Point was located. Pomeroy was commissioned a lieutenant colonel on March 29, 1755 and joined some of his old comrades from the Louisbourg mission. Pomeroy's younger brother, Daniel, would also be part of the force as a lieutenant. Seth Pomeroy would keep a journal in the same pocket sized book he took to Louisbourg. [18]

Pomeroy would play a more vital role in the Crown Point expedition than in Louisbourg. He continued his task of fixing and repairing armaments of all types and oversaw the digging of trenches as a line of defense. On the route north he was often sent out in the command of relief columns of about 400 men to aid troops who were under Native American ambush. Often false alarms, he fought in minor skirmishes which amounted to little relative action.[19]

Regarding the Native Americans, which Pomeroy had dealt with on many occasions, he remained reasonably skeptical. Despite spending a good amount of his military career pursuing and defending against Native Americans he recognized they could be a valuable ally. As was the case on both sides of the battle, the British carried a Native American contingent with them on the Crown Point mission. General William Johnson was famous for his warm relations with Native Americans and used his relationship with them to augment the number of able men.

Pomeroy had experienced enough of frontier life to know not to fully trust them though he said of there presence, "we have now about 200 Indians with us they seem to be engaged in our interest but time only will prove there sincerity & know whether they will fight for us or not." [20]

As the British approached from the south, the French were not idle. Alerted to the movements of the British they were advancing down Lake Champlain towards Lake George. On September 8, General Johnson sent a force of 1,000 troops from Colonel Ephram Williams' Massachusetts Regiment and Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Whiting's Connecticut Regiment along with 200 Mohawks to aid the troops at Fort George who he believed to be under attack. Pomeroy was a Lieutenant Colonel in Williams' Regiment and marched out with the troops at eight o'clock that morning. Little did anyone know they would be walking into a trap. [21]

The Battle of Lake George was a three part engagement and Pomeroy was in the heart of the first phase known as the "The Bloody Morning Scout". The 1,000 man relief column was ambushed by a combined force of French and Native Americans. Colonel Williams had failed to put out advance or flanking scouts and so the ambush remained undetected. When the first shots rang out against the advancing British line, Colonel Williams and the head Native American, Chief Hendrick, were dead. Pomeroy found himself in the middle of an ambush and with Colonel Williams dead, the commanding officer of the Massachusetts militia.[22]

Pomeroy's force was overmatched and caught by surprise. He led them in an orderly and brave retreat back to the British camp. In his journal he describes his view of the battle. After the initial surprise attack, the troops in the rear made a break for the camp they had just departed but the "others being over matched were obliged to fight upon a retreat & a very handsome retreat they made by continuing there fire & then retreating a little & then rise and give them a brisk fire."

Along with Lieutenant Colonel Whiting of Connecticut, Pomeroy was the only other officer to make it back to the British camp. The retreating columns Pomeroy led continued to fire upon the attacking French and Native Americans. The militia "killed a great numbers of them seen to drop as pigeons." Pomeroy led the men back into camp, but his job was not over for the French were pursuing them with "undaunted courage" and planned on attacking the camp. [23] Pomeroy noted that the "Candaians & Indians took the left wingÉ down along toward the camp they had the advantage of the ground passing over a hollow & rising a note within gun shot." They then hid behind trees and logs and laid a devastating fire upon the camp. On the west side of the camp Pomeroy, with 3 or 4 cannons, stationed himself and his men to repulse the oncoming attackers.

The exchange of fire lasted from noon until five in the evening and Pomeroy described it as, "the most violent fire perhaps yet ever was heard of in this country." As evening wore on the British gained the upper hand. The French General, Baron de Dieskau, was dead and the French broke off the attack and retreated. [24]

The casualty numbers for the Battle of Lake George are still disputed to this day. Pomeroy led a command of 400 men on the day after battle with the "most melancholy peace of business" of burying 136 dead bodies. Among the names of those who died at the Battle of Lake George were close friends of Pomeroy who he had fought with at Louisbourg along with his brother, Lieutenant Daniel Pomeroy. He wrote a letter to his sister-in-law, Rachel, describing how Daniel "received a fatal shot through the middle of the head." He offered her a pray, "I pray to God to have mercy on your poor fatherless children." [25]

The mission to Crown Point was cancelled and Pomeroy agreed staying at Lake George was the proper move. "I judge we are better off now (that is if we make a good fort here) then if we had took Crown Point; for it is much easier to keep this place then it would be to keep Crown Point." [26]

The character of Pomeroy truly started to present itself during and after the battle of Lake George. The loss of so many officers required promotions of existing officers to take the place of those lost in battle. Pomeroy would be an obvious choice but General Williams promoted two other men from another regiment. The men of Northampton had signed a petition to have Pomeroy made colonel but they were sorely disappointed. Pomeroy never mentioned it in his journal nor made a formal complaint. It wasn't until the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Spence Phips, stepped in and directed that commissions be issued for promotions within the regiments. At last, Pomeroy was to succeed Williams as colonel. Pomeroy's integrity and honor during the whole promotion issue endeared him further to his men and added to his reputation. [27]

The troops remained idle as the decision on how to proceed was discussed among the officers. Colonel Pomeroy continued his duties within camp which included commanding scouting missions and helping construct fortifications. However on October 13, about a month after the battle, Pomeroy started to come down with a virus. Each day grew worse as the weather started to turn colder as autumn progressed. His appetite was weak and he had a fever which worsened as the days went on. He tried to rest and let his body fight the infection but to no avail. Finally by October 19, Pomeroy could no longer withstand the rising fever and asked for permission to head home to recover. Had the expedition's fate been unknown Pomeroy may have yet stayed but with the Battle of Lake George over he felt comfortable leaving. [28]

Traveling with his nephew, also named Seth, he worked his way south back towards Northampton. His fever ran very high and for a few days it looked as if the illness would get the best of him. For ten days he was so sick he couldn't move and struggled to stay alive as he fought the fever. Stubbornly, Pomeroy wouldn't let a fever end his life after he had survived the ambush at Lake George. He eventually recovered and returned home to his wife and children on October 23. [29]

Pomeroy remained inactive for most of the remainder of the war. In 1759 and 1760 he once again saw active duty manning and protecting frontier forts. He helped in opening up roads to the west for which the Governor was especially thankful. The end of the French and Indian War saw Canada change hands from French to British territory. Much of the French threat in North America was eradicated and so Pomeroy's antagonist in his past military campaigns was removed.

The colonies could now live in relative peace and Pomeroy, along with other men of his time, hoped to live out his life at home with his wife and children. Unbeknownst to him, the services of Seth Pomeroy would be called upon by his country again. [30]

Marriage & Religion

Seth Pomeroy was a devoted member of his militia unit, a successful blacksmith and experienced soldier but first and foremost he was a man of faith and family. His letters include repeated references to the divine providence and its ultimate authority; coupled with Pomeroy's affectionate prose to his wife he reveals himself to be a man of passion and loyalty to his religion and family. His prolonged absences from home demonstrated an ability to suppress personal feelings in the service of his country.

It is little wonder why Seth Pomeroy would have been such a man of religious fervor. The Great Awakening, a time of religious renewal, took place in the colonies in the 1730's and 1740's. Not only was Pomeroy a young adult maturing into a man when this revitalization swept the continent, it began in his home town, Northampton. The famous Congregationalist minister, Jonathan Edwards, preached a few miles from Pomeroy's home and the impact this would have had on Pomeroy and his religious beliefs is unquestionable. On his expeditions to Louisbourg and Lake George, Pomeroy was sure to hear a sermon from the military chaplain and repeatedly dined with the clergy accompanying the camp. [31]

Allied closely with his religious beliefs is Pomeroy's devotion to his family and his wife. He married Mary Hunt on December 14, 1732. They would have nine children together between 1733 and 1749. In order of birth they are Seth, Quartus, Medad, Lemuel, Martha, Mary, Sarah, a stillborn and Asahel. He would write his wife letters throughout his military campaigning career. The letters would range from simple status and location updates ("It is with a great deal of pleasure & satisfactionÉ I have of acquainting you of my circumstance & how things fair with me.") to heartfelt verses demonstrating his ceaseless love for her ("The great distance of place and length cannot, as long as in the flesh, in the least take off the edge of my love."). The strength to remain apart under such trying circumstances derived from their shared religious devotion. [32]

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[1] N.S. Dodge. "Colonel Seth Pomeroy," The American Review Volume 7 (1848): 468-469.

[2] Louis Effingham de Forest, The Journals and Papers of Seth Pomeroy: Sometime General in the Colonial Service (New Haven: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Company), 1; Dodge, "Colonel Seth Pomeroy," 461.

[3] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 1.

[4] Ibid, 4-5; Dodge, "Colonel Seth Pomeroy," 461, 469.; Address of George Eltweed Pomeroy, Delivered at the unveiling of the Monument to General Seth Pomeroy at Peekskill, N.Y. June 17, 1898 by The Sons of the Revolution of New York,

[5] Address of George Eltweed Pomeroy, June 17, 1898.

[6] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 10-12.

[7] Howard H. Peckham, The Colonial Wars, 1689-1762 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 99.

[8] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 23; Peckham, The Colonial Wars, 102.

[9] All quotes from Pomeroy's personal journal have had their words altered to current accepted English spelling.

[10] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 25,29,41.

[11] Ibid, 31.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 43.

[14] Ibid, 45-46.

[15] Ibid, 48-50.

[16] Ibid, 47, 74.

[17] Ibid, 59,73; Peckham, Colonial Wars, 118-119.

[18] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 100; Peckham, Colonial Wars, 148-149.

[19] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 108-109.

[20] Ibid, 111.

[21] Ibid, 114; Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Vintage, 2000), 119.

[22] Peckham, Colonial Wars, 150; Anderson, Crucible of War, 119.

[23] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 114.

[24] Ibid, 114-115; Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War (Chapel Hill: Da Capo, 1995), 174-175.

[25] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 115, 143.

[26] Ibid, 148.

[27] Ibid, 117.

[28] Ibid, 125-126.

[29] Ibid, 126-127.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 344-345.

[32] de Forest, Journals and Papers, 2, 58, 65.