George Kentfield: Soldier of the Revolution

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The American Revolution began with the Declaration of Independence, right? Wrong! The fighting started over a year before, and some would say even before that. The running battle at Lexington and Concord occurred in April 1775, and America was at war. A reluctant war for many, a war ill-prepared for, a war probably opposed by a majority of the population, but a war nonetheless. George Kentfield's role in that war is for two years a history of the war itself in the North.

The first significant offensive action by the Colonies happened soon after Lexington. There was general recognition of the vulnerability of the colonies to an attack from Canada. Should the British move south from Montreal, down Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River to New York, the northern colonies would be completely cut off from the southern colonies, and the war would be over. This was, of course, the very same fear that had caused William Kentfield to be in New York in 1700, and that had led to his son Ebenezer's death at Lake George in 1756. It was the constant fear of the Colonists so long as a hostile power held Canada. And it was well-founded. This map of the Lake Champlain region may help you with the geography.

To try to fend off such an attack, one of the few capable military leaders in the Colonies, Benedict Arnold, was sent to Upstate New York. On the way he joined with a gang of almost 200 rabble-rousers from a remote northern territory claimed by both New York and New Hampshire - a territory that soon would declare itself the independent Republic of Vermont. This group of "Green Mountain Boys" was led by a supremely self-confident, physically intimidating and quite obnoxious man named Ethan Allen. He and Arnold squabbled over who should give the orders and take the credit, but on May 10 they succeeded in capturing the unprepared fort at Ticonderoga. The fort controlled the southern end of Lake Champlain, and so long as the Colonists held it, the route from Canada was blocked. The fort also had cannon, a war necessity in very short supply in the Colonies.

Benedict Arnold immediately sailed up Lake Champlain to Fort St. John, at its northern end, where he captured a gunboat. Meanwhile, a portion of Allen's men captured their secondary target, the fort at Crown Point, then continued north to join Arnold. But in the face of 150 British troops coming down from Montreal, discretion for once prevailed, and after a brief skirmish they withdrew to Crown Point and Ti. The artillery pieces they captured would be hauled laboriously to Boston the next winter, where they would be installed secretly and literally overnight on Dorchester Heights, forcing the British to evacuate their New England stronghold. Evacuation Day is to this day a legal holiday in Boston, but nowhere else.

Flush with his success at Fort Ticonderoga, Allen immediately broached an audacious plan: to prevent a British attack from Canada, the Colonists should capture Canada themselves. His "Boys" disagreed, and decided they would follow Seth Warner instead of Allen. (Like many militia units, the Green Mountain Boys elected their colonel.) Meanwhile, Arnold reported to the Continental Congress. On June 1, Congress decided that there would be no move against Canada. Since there was little hope that an attack could succeed, yet substantial hope still that a long and difficult war with England could be avoided, there was no appetite for such a hostile move. Instead, the focus was on the immediate needs for a brief, limited war. George Washington was placed in command of the small army, while squabbling continued over how to fund the war, and indeed whether there should be a war at all. What military preparations were being made mainly involved state militias in New England.

On June 17, 1775, the British in Boston tried to dislodge a small force of Continental troops and militia from primitive fortifications atop a hill across the harbor in Charlestown. While the British finally prevailed at what would become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill (the fight actually was on Breed's Hill), their staggering losses and the inspired defense caused an outpouring of feeling on both sides. ("Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!" Not only was this an inspiring line, but more important, it helped to preserve the very limited ammunition supply.) The British would never again attempt a frontal attack on dug-in American defenders. They retreated to their stronghold in Boston. Congress responded with fervor, and on June 27 instructed General Phillip Schuyler to attack and capture Canada.

The Canada campaign quickly developed a two-pronged strategy. Schuyler would gather a force near Albany. They would go up the Lake George-Lake Champlain route, follow the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence, and capture Montreal. Meanwhile, Benedict Arnold would lead a second force from Boston through the wilderness that would later be Maine, along a trail blazed in 1761. They would connect to the Chaudiers River, which would lead them to the St. Lawrence at Quebec. Once Montreal and Quebec fell, the local residents would rally to the cause, all of Canada would be theirs, and the war would be all but won. So went the plan, as shown in this map.

On July 17, 1775 38-year-old George Kentfield enlisted in James Osgood's Company of Rangers in Bedel's Regiment of New Hampshire Militia. George lived in Frysburg (now Fryeburg, Maine), and the company mustered in Conway, New Hampshire (1775 population: 273). They probably marched to Whitehall, New York to join Schuyler's force. There were a total of about 1,800 soldiers, largely from New York and Connecticut, with about 100 men from Bedel's Regiment under Major John Brown and a contingent of Green Mountain Boys. In late August they headed up Lake Champlain. Schuyler fell sick with "bilious fever" at Isle aux Nois, and command fell to Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. (Some sources say instead that Schuyler dawdled until the impatient Montgomery went ahead without him.)

In mid-September Montgomery neared Fort St. Johns on the Richelieu River. Ethan Allen, John Brown and a small force with translators were sent into Canada to gather reconnaissance and make contact with the local population, hoping to garner support for the attack. Allen, emboldened by his success at Ticonderoga, decided to make an attempt on Montreal without waiting for Montgomery. On September 25 they attacked. The plan was for Allen's force to cross the St. Lawrence at one point, while Brown's force crossed at another, and to attack the city from two directions. Brown decided the weather made it too dangerous to cross the river, but for some reason did not inform Allen. The headstrong Allen proceeeded with his part of the plan, and with the British defenders concentrating on him was easily defeated. Allen was captured, to spend the next three years a British prisoner of war. In his memoirs, he blamed the debacle on Brown's failure to carry out his part of the plan. Brown was killed later in the war, and I have yet to find a source giving his side (or an objective account) of the episode. Ira Allen later wrote that "The conduct of Brown and [Seth] Warner is hard to be accounted for, on any principles honourable to themselves." Given Brown's generally high reputation as a soldier, my own conclusion is that Allen's overconfidence and cockiness were the true cause.

Brown's force remained near Montreal, reinforced by two additional companies of New Yorkers, skirmishing constantly. Meanwhile, the primary plan continued. On October 18 Montgomery took Chambly, north of St. Johns. St. Johns itself, the major strong point in the area, surrendered on November 2 after a forty-eight day siege, and Montgomery headed for Montreal. After a brief siege, Montreal surrendered on November 13. The British commander, General Carlton, escaped to Quebec by hiding under a layer of straw in a birchbark canoe while a Canadian paddled past the American boats (thereby earning himself a pension of 82 pounds annually for the rest of his life). After only a brief rest, Montgomery headed to Quebec to join up with Arnold. Along the way, at a place called La Valtrie (about 30 miles down the St. Lawrence from Montreal), George Kentfield re-enlisted on November 26. Seth Warner's Vermonters, their enlistments up, returned home.

While Montgomery was proceeding more or less as planned, Arnold was struggling. He left Fort Western (now Augusta, Maine) on September 25 with about 1,100 men, proceeding in small boats up the Kennebec River. Things went well enough at first, notwithstanding their flimsy and leaky boats, but in mid-October they left the Kennebec to hike to Bog Brook, and things began to go seriously wrong. The route had been badly underestimated, as to both distance and difficulty. Food ran out, and no one was certain where they were or how far remained to travel. After eating the pet dog, the men were reduced to boiling and eating their mocassins, belts and other leather equipment. They reached the Dead River on October 19, but the next day a large portion of Arnold's force turned back, leaving him with just 700 men. Not until the last few days of October did they reach the "Height of Land" and enter the St. Lawrence watershed.

Now travelling went better, and the force reached the Chaudiers River at Sartigan on November 5. By the 13th they reached the St. Lawrence itself, crossing at night to evade the British warships and finally reach the outskirts of Quebec. But Arnold was well aware that his underfed, underequipped and undermanned army was incapable of doing battle, and he withdrew 20 miles upriver to Points aux Trembles to wait for Montgomery.

On December 2 Montgomery arrived with fresh troops, clothing and supplies. A siege and bombaedment of the city began on December 8, but accomplished little except to deplete ammunition and supplies. There were sharp disputes about strategy, but with many of the soldiers' enlistments about to expire, their hand was forced. On New Year's Eve, they attacked in the middle of a howling blizzard.

The delays had been costly. Carlton had superior intelligence, and was well-prepared. The Colonists also suffered from simple bad luck. In one prong of the attack, the very first cannon shot from the defenders killed General Montgomery and several others. In a separate prong, Arnold was seriously wounded at the outset, and although still giving orders, he was forced to retire from the scene. In short order the entire attack collapsed. The Colonial forces lost 60 killed or wounded and over 420 captured, while total British losses were 5 killed and 13 wounded.

There is reason to suspect that Captain Osgood was a casualty. On December 31, George Kentfield was paid; the document actually says he was discharged, although his re-enlistment in November was good until April. (December 31 was the expiration date for many other soldiers.) On February 8 he appears as a Corporal on another pay list of "Osgood's Party." But on February 17 he is listed on a muster roll of Charles Nelson's Company at camp near Quebec. Interestingly, this last record was found in New Hampshire state documents, but not in the National Archives. Additional research will try to determine whether, as I suspect, Osgood was wounded and either ceded command or died. Another possibility is that he died of disease; smallpox was rampant in the camps.

Arnold would not give up. He stubbornly held on near Quebec, waiting for reinforcements promised by Congress. On January 15 Congress authorized additional troops for Canada, and according to one Vermont historical reference, in March a contingent of additional troops from Bedel's Regiment snowshoed across Vermont to Highgate, then traveled on to Canada. The trail they used almost certainly went within a few miles of the land George Kentfield would settle 17 years later. Still more reinforcements were authorized by Congress in the spring.

But in May, British General John Burgoyne arrived at Quebec with additional troops, bringing total British forces in Canada up to 13,000 men. The attacking Colonials never numbered more than 5,000. Even though Congress authorized another 6,000 men on June 1, ultimately even Arnold realized that the plan had failed. There was nothing left but to withdraw back down Lake Champlain. On June 24 George Kentfield was listed in Capt. Estabrook's company at Isle Aux Noix, at the northern end of the lake, and by July the Colonial army reached Crown Point. George probably was discharged (he was paid) at Isle Aux Noix, and returned cross-country to New Hampshire. His brief initial enlistment had stretched to over 11 months.

But apparently, George never reached his home in Frysburg. On July 2, 1776 he enlisted as a Private in Shepherd's Company in Wyman's Regiment at a place called Boscawen (1775 population: 585), just north of Concord, New Hampshire. Two days later the Declaration of Independence would be officially proclaimed. Isaac Wyman had been instructed by the New Hampshire Legislature to raise a regiment of 750 men to reinforce the troops in Canada. But before they could reach Canada, the army had retreated back to Crown Point and Fort Ti, so Wyman's men remained in that area. One source puts them at Mount Independence on November 5. I have not found documentation of George's discharge. It is likely he remained with the regiment until November or December, then returned to New Hampshire.

The retreating Americans were followed down Lake Champlain by a small British force under Carleton, hoping to take control of Lake George and the route to Albany. Carleton had to wait until his ships from the St. Lawrence could be disassembled, hauled overland, and reassembled on Lake Champlain. He then was delayed on the way down Lake Champlain by a small fleet of gunboats, hastily constructed and led by the ubiquitous Benedict Arnold, at the Battle of Valcour Island in October. To this day the town of Whitehall, New York, where the boats were built, proclaims itself "Birthplace of the American Navy." By the time Carleton reached Crown Point and Ticonderoga, he had outrun his supply lines and faced the onset of bad weather, and ultimately he was forced to turn back.

In the meantime, the center of the war had shifted to New York City. The cannon from Fort Ti had forced the British to leave Boston, and they decided to make New York their primary base in the colonies. After landing in Staten Island, they defeated George Washington's small, badly equipped, ill-trained and undisciplined army in a series of battles over the summer in Brooklyn, Harlem and White Plains, driving Washington into New Jersey, where the British chased him south through the fall. They would hold New York for the rest of the war. Washington camped in Pennsylvania, his short-term militiamen going home in droves, searching desperately for a way to hold on through the winter. he news that Carlton had returned to Canada helped, but if things didn't improve in New Jersey, the war would be lost.

With militia enlistments running out at the end of the year, reinforcements were needed everywhere. Washington asked New Hampshire to raise three new regiments to hold the forts at Ti and Crown Point. On December 18, 1776 George Kentfield enlisted yet again, this time in William Walker's Company of David Gilman's Regiment. This unit mustered in Plymouth, New Hampshire (population: 382). While it is possible George had moved there, no local records have been found so far to support that notion. The regiment went to Fort Ti. In New Jersey, Washington and his officers entreated his troops to reenlist, but with little success. In late December, Gilman's Regiment and additional troops were sent from Ti to join Washington.

They arrived just in time. Washington had devised a bold and risky plan, but needed more men. Things worked out in the end. By the time Washington was ready, it was near year-end. The attack was planned for Christmas night, when the British officers might be partying. (In this instance, "British" actually meant "Hessian," German troops hired by the British to add strength to their own forces.) Troops from Marblehead, Massachusetts handled the boat work, getting Washington and his troops across the icy Delaware River in the dead of night. (Yes, it's that Crossing of the Delaware. But I don't recognize George Kentfield in the famous painting.) They attacked the Hessians in Trenton at dawn, winning a striking victory. Washington followed up a few days later with another victory at Princeton.

Washington then put the icing on the cake. He took up winter camp at a strategic position, threatening the British supply lines in New Jersey. The British were forced to abandon the entire colony and withdraw to New York. The twin victories breathed new life into Washington's army. The North was safe from General Carlton, New Jersey was safe from General Howe, and the dream of an independent America would live on into 1777. George Kentfield went home to New Hampshire in March, his job done. For a while.

The summer of 1777 brought chilling news: the much-feared major British invasion down Lake Champlain was under way. The British had a sound plan. Burgoyne would come down the classic route of Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River to Albany. Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger would make a diversionary attack from Lake Ontario, driving east through Western New York along the Mohawk River, drawing defenders away and eventually joining Burgoyne at Albany, where they would take control of the Hudson down to New York City. Finally, General Sir William Howe's troops would move south from New York City, occupying the main American army and capturing Philadelphia, while another group under Clinton would move north from the city to meet Burgoyne. With the Colonial capital taken, and New England, the economic and emotional heart of the Revolution, cut off from the other colonies, the war would be over.

Hearing of the move from Canada, the colonies began to mobilize additional units to reinforce the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga. On July 5, George Kentfield joined David Webster's Company in Plymouth, a unit designated for Fort Ti. They marched west. But in the meantime, Burgoyne took Crown Point and reached Ticonderoga. As Burgoyne prepared to attack Fort Ti, its commander realized the undermanned fort could not be held, and it was abandoned. A rear-guard defense was fought at Hubbardton on July 7, the only battle of the war actually fought on Vermont soil. The action bought some time but otherwise counted as a defeat. As George Kentfield marched across southern Vermont, his company met the troops retreating from Ticonderoga at Cavendish. The new company was disbanded. George's enlistment had lasted all of twelve days.

The loss of Fort Ti without a fight was a staggering blow to the Colonies. While Congress deliberated and others waffled, New Hampshire acted instantly and decisively. The legislature recalled John Stark, who had led the defense of Bunker Hill (actually Breed's Hill), from retirement and asked him to organize and lead a new force. The word went out, and just a week after his last discharge, George Kentfield again enlisted at Plymouth. This time he was a Sergeant in Captain Edward Elliott's Company in David Hobart's Regiment. Stark gathered his 1,400 troops at historic Fort No. 4 in Charlestown, New Hampshire (across the Connecticut River from today's Springfield, Vermont) and marched west.

Burgoyne was now beginning to experience problems. His supply lines were overextended (long-range logistics in hostile territory were a constant problem for the British Army throughout the war), and he was running out of food and ammunition. A successful defense by the Colonials in the West -- involving yet again the leadership of Benedict Arnold -- had slowed Col. St. Leger, and finally stopped him cold. Burgoyne's scouts told him there were supplies available for the taking at nearby Bennington, and on August 13 he sent a detachment of 600 men under Colonel Baum to do the taking. But Stark was ready. At Bunker Hill, the Colonials had dug in atop the hill. The British made repeated frontal assaults, allowing the defenders to mass their fire against the attacking front. Stark, having managed that defense, also knew how to defeat it: he divided his forces around the hill held by the British, and attacked their earth-and-log fortifications from all sides simultaneously. Stark himself led George Kentfield and Hobart's Regiment in the frontal portion of the attack. He prevailed. Burgoyne sent a relief force of another 600 men, and Stark, aided by the late arrival of Seth Warner's Green Mountain Boys, decimated it. The shell-shocked British withdrew into New York, licking their wounds.

The Battle of Bennington (the actual battleground today is just over the line in New York) on August 16 is generally considered the turning point of the campaign. It was a surprising and sound defeat for the British forces, which outnumbered Stark's command two-to-one. And 41-year-old Sergeant George Kentfield played his part. A month later, as the opposing armies jockeyed for position north of Albany, his enlistment expired, and on September 28 he was discharged. No further service record has yet been found, so he may have returned to New Hampshire just before the final act. (I am not convinced of this, though; in Canada George had extended his enlistment repeatedly to complete the campaign.) The Battle of Saratoga is considered the turning point of the entire war. On October 17, 1777 "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne surrendered.

Shortly before his surrender, Burgoyne wrote to his superiors about the unruly men from the nascent state of Vermont: "the district of the New Hampshire grants, a wilderness, little known in the last war, now abounds with the most active rebellious, and hardy race of men on the continent, who hang like a gathering storm ready to burst on my left." After Saratoga, Ticonderoga and other forts were demolished by the British themselves to prevent their capture. The British troops withdrew into Canada, pursued by Col. Herrick's Vermont Rangers, never to return for the remainder of the war.

The events of Bennnington and Saratoga illustrate themes that apply more broadly to the entire Revolution, especially in the North. The British consistently underestimated the difficulties of war in America. For example, as Colonel Baum headed to Bennington, his orders (found in his pocket after he was killed in the battle) were to continue all the way to the Connecticut River, then south to Brattleboro, and return. This required him to move his force of infantry, cavalry and artillery more than 30 miles every day, and cross the Green Mountains twice, over the most primitive of trails through the wilderness, and with no support from the local populace - an impossible task never recognized as such by the British generals.

The Colonials, for their part, consistently underestimated the organizational and logistical requirements of the war. Political squabbles constantly threatened to sabotage their best efforts. General Schuyler tried to exercise his ostensible authority over Stark, but Stark flatly (and petulantly) refused. And yet, it was this very stubbornness of the New Englanders that allowed Stark, the far more capable commander, to engineer the victory at Bennington and make Saratoga possible. A pivotal role at Saratoga was played by -- you guessed it -- Benedict Arnold, prohibited from command of any troops by General Gage, but who simply took charge by sheer force of character at a key point on the battlefield and captured a critical British position. Arnold personally turned what would have been a draw into a decisive vistory. George Washington constantly despaired of ever bringing the ragtag, untrained, undisciplined, short-term state militia under effective control, yet it was that militia, by and large, that won the war in the North.

Over a 27-month period, George Kentfield spent some 23 months in military service. The multitude of short-term enlistments, often following close upon each other, was typical of the time, especially for state militiamen. It is hard to imagine how George could have maintained a home or family through this period, and indeed, I think it likely that he did not. In spite of his age, no indication has been found that he was married before or during his service, and no mention of him has been found yet in any town record between 1756 (he was 20 years old when his mother was appointed guardian in Massachusetts) and 1779 (when he was married in Conway, New Hampshire at the age of 43). Does his military service explain his absence from the more common records of everyday life? Was he too busy fighting to raise a family? Or is it the other way around? Did he spend so much time in the militia precisely because he had no home or family? The only clue we have so far is that the record of his first enlistment gives his occupation as "carpender."