Our van pursued those of the enemy who first met them so closely that they were led straight to the entrance used by the Indians themselves, perhaps by their design then to attract attention from an exposed part of their works a short distance away. The passage left by the Indians for their own use, as before mentioned, was by a long tree over a "place of water," across which but one might pass at a time, "and which was so waylaid that they would have been cut off that had ventured." Mr. Hubbard counts among the fortunate circumstances of that day that the troops did not attempt to carry this point, and that they discovered the only assailable point a little farther on.
This was at a corner of the fort where was a large unfinished gap, where neither palisades nor the abattis, or "hedge," had been placed, but only a long tree had been laid across about five feet from the ground, to fill the gap, and might be easily passed; only that the block-house right opposite this gap and the flankers at the sides were finished, from which a galling fire might sweep and enfilade the passage. Mr. Hubbard's account is very clear about this, yet several writers have sadly confused matters and described the first as the point of assault.
The companies of Capts. Davenport and Johnson came first1 to this place, and those officers at once charged through the gap and over the log at the head of their companies, but Johnson fell dead at the log, and Davenport a little within the fort, and their men were met with so fierce a fire that they were forced to retire again and fall upon their faces to avoid the fury of the musketry till it should somewhat abate. Mosely and Gardiner, pressing to their assistance, met a similar reception, losing heavily, till they too fell back with the others, until Major Appleton coming up with his own and Capt. Oliver's men, massed his entire force as a storming column, and it is said that the shout of one of the commanders that the Indians were running, so inspired the soldiers that they made an impetuous assault, carried the entrance amain, beat the enemy from one of his flankers at the left, which afforded them a temporary shelter from the Indians still holding the block-house opposite the entrance. In the mean time, the General, holding the Plymouth forces in reserve, pushed forward the Connecticut troops, who not being aware of the extent of the danger from the block-house, suffered fearfully at their first entrance, but charged forward gallantly, though some of their brave officers and many of their comrades lay dead behind them, and unknown numbers and dangers before.
The forces now joining, beat the enemy step by step, and with the fierce fighting, out of their block-houses and various fortifications. Many of the Indians, driven from their works, fled outside, some doubtless to the wigwams inside, of which there were said to be upward of five hundred, many of them large and rendered bullet-proof by large quantities of grain in tubs and bags, placed along the sides. In these many of their old people and their women and children had gathered for safety, and behind and within these as defences the Indians still kept up a skulking fight, picking off our men. After three hours hard fighting, with many of the officers and men wounded or dead, a treacherous enemy of unknown numbers and resources lurking in the surrounding forests, and the night coming on, word comes to fire the wigwams, and the battle becomes a fearful holocaust, great numbers of those who had taken refuge therein being burned.
The fight had now raged for nearly three hours, with dreadful carnage in proportion to the numbers engaged. It is not certain at just what point the Plymouth forces were pushed forward, but most likely after the works were carried, and the foremost, exhausted, retired for a time, bearing their dead and wounded to the rear; but we are assured that all took part in the engagement.(1 John Raymond (Rayment) claimed to have been the first soldier to enter the fort, coming on in turn as needed. It is doubtful if the cavalry crossed the swamp, but were rather held in reserve and as scouts to cover the rear and prevent surprises from any outside parties.)
When now the fortress and all its contents were burning, and destruction assured, our soldiers hastily gathered their wounded and as many as possible of their dead, and formed their shattered column for the long and weary march back to Wickford.
Reliable details of this battle are few, and only gleaned from casual references here and there, and thus many, who have sought to write upon the matter, have quoted in full the story of Benjamin Church, who relates his own experience, and draws out his personal reminiscences with all an old man's fondness for his deeds of "long ago." The very small part he took in this battle is evident even from his own story, and from the utter silence of other writers, especially Mr. Hubbard, who knew Church and commends him highly for his exploits in the Mount Hope campaign. No one can doubt the ability or courage of Mr. Church, but his part in this battle was simply that when the fort was carried and the fighting nearly over, he went, with some thirty others, into and through the fort and out into the swamp upon the trail of the retreating foe, discovered, ambushed and scattered a skulking party of them returning to the attack, chased a few of them into the fort amongst the huts, and was himself severely wounded by them thus brought to bay.
I wish here to record my protest against the unjust, often weak, and always inconsiderate, criticism bestowed upon our leaders in this campaign, and especially in this battle, for their lack of foresight in abandoning the shelter and provisions of the fort, their sacrifice of the lives of our wounded men through their removal and the dangers and fatigues of the long march, and their inhumanity in burning the helpless and innocent in their huts and wigwams.
It is well to remember at the start that many of the wisest, ablest and bravest men of the three colonies were the leaders in this affair. A noble commander, wise and brave; reverend ministers, by no means backward with their opinions; the most prominent and skilful surgeons the country afforded; veteran majors and captains of Massachusetts and Connecticut, with their veteran soldiers fresh from the severe experiences in the western campaign, inured to danger and experienced in Indian wiles and deceits: against all these we have recorded only the remonstrance of Mr. Church, who up to that time, at least, had experience in Indian warfare only as a scout, and the only record we have of any protest by him was made many years after the affair. And again, from the standpoint of their conditions as nearly as we can now judge, it seems that their hasty retreat was wise.
They were some sixteen miles from their base of supplies (it is doubtful if they had noted the Indian supplies until the burning began). There was no way of reaching their provisions and ammunition at Wickford except by detaching a portion of their force now reduced greatly by death, wounds and exposure. The numbers of Indians that had escaped, and were still in the woods close at hand, were unknown, but supposed to be several thousand, with report of a thousand in reserve about a mile distant. These were now scattered and demoralized, but in a few hours might rally and fall upon the fort, put our troops, in their weakened condition, upon the defensive, and make their retreat from the swamp extremely difficult if not utterly impossible, encumbered as they would be by the wounded, whose swollen and stiffened wounds in a few hours would render removal doubly painful and dangerous. Added to this was the chance of an attack upon the garrison at Wickford, and the dread of the midnight ambuscade, which every hour's delay made more likely and would render more dangerous. Thus it seems to me that from the standpoint of military strategy, the immediate retreat to Wickford was best. As to humanity, we must remember the harsh times in which they were living, the contempt in which the Indians were held -- first, as heathen, against whom war was righteous; second, as idle and treacherous vagabonds, with no rights which honest industry was bound to respect; third, as deadly enemies lying in wait to plunder, burn and destroy. Moreover, the very life of the colonies was threatened by this war; many thriving hamlets were already in ashes; hundreds of families were broken up and scattered up and down, with loss of all; fathers, husbands and brothers slain or in captivity, farms and homes laid waste, whole communities huddled in wretched block-houses, while the "reign of terror" swept about them. Brookfield, "Beers's Plain," and "Bloody-Brook," with their outrage and carnage, were fresh in mind, and, a few days before, the destruction and massacre at Pettisquamscot; while even here at their feet were their dead and dying comrades and beloved officers. Is it strange that they were cruel, when now for the first time they came face to face with the authors of all their troubles in a fair fight? By any candid student of history I believe this must be classed as one of the most glorious victories ever achieved in our history, and considering conditions, as displaying heroism, both in stubborn patience and dashing intrepidity, never excelled in
Of the details of the march to Wickford very little is known; through a bitter cold winter's night, in a blinding snow-storm, carrying two hundred and ten of their wounded and dead, these soldiers, who had marched from dawn till high noon, had engaged in a desperate life-and-death struggle from noon till sunset, now plodded sturdily back to their quarters of the day before, through deepening snows and over unbroken roads.1 By the letters below, it will be seen that the General and staff, with their escort, got1 There is a tradition (mentioned in a note in Hon. Elisha R. Potter, Jr.'s "Early History of
Narragansett") that the English feared an ambuscade in force on the line of march by which they
had come, and so marched by way of McSparran Hill on their return. separated from the main column, lost their way and wandered about till 7 o'clock next morning, while the main body reached their quarters at 2 o'clock.
The names of those officers and soldiers of Massachusetts killed and wounded in this battle have been given heretofore in the sketches of the companies to which they belonged.
By Capt. Oliver's letter, written a little more than a month afterwards from the seat of war, and considered official, we learn that up to that time the dead numbered about sixty-eight, and the wounded one hundred and fifty, in the whole army. Eight of the dead were left in the fort, and twelve more were dead when they started back to Wickford. Twenty-two died on the march, and before the next day, Monday, Dec. 20th, when they buried thirty-four in one grave, and six more within two days, eight died at Rhode Island, and three others, making in all but fifty-nine, if we reckon the twelve carried from the fort as a part of the thirty-four buried Dec. 20th; otherwise, seventy-one. But the first estimate of sixty-eight is satisfied if we add the twenty killed at the fort to those buried at Wickford and Rhode Island, and conclude that the twelve taken from the fort were buried somewhere on the march.
Ninigret, sachem of the Nianticks, sent to General Winslow word that his people had buried the dead of the English left at the Fort, and that the number was twenty-four, and he asked for a charge of powder for each. This information was given in a letter from Major Bradford to Rev. Mr. Cotton of Plymouth.
Of the losses of Massachusetts we are not left in doubt, since there is still preserved in our archives a full and official return, which Mr. Hubbard gives substantially, adding to the wounded probably those whose wounds were slight and not reported at the time, and with some modifications of the list of dead, though with the same total.
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