Benjamin Whitcomb

Major Benjamin Whitcomb, Whitcomb’s Battalion, N.H. Rangers

Benjamin Whitcomb, Jr. was born July 2, 1737 in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He was the son of Benjamin, Sr. and Dorothy (White) Whitcomb.

Benjamin Whitcomb, Jr.’s introduction to war came during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War when he enlisted in a Massachusetts regiment and joined General Johnson’s expedition against Crown Point on Lake Champlain, New York, As such, he was in the battle of Lake George on September 8, 1755. His next major action came when he enlisted for service with General Jeffery Amherst in the expedition against Montreal. During the campaign, Whitcomb was promoted to Lieutenant. After the Montreal expedition ended, some of the companies returned home over the Crown

Point Road to Fort Number 4 at Charlestown, New Hampshire and then on to Massachusetts.

The trip across Vermont must have been enjoyable for Whitcomb for on October 12, 1761, he was one of the original grantees of Cavendish, Vermont. He held this piece of land until 1764. By this time, Benjamin Whitcomb had moved to Westmoreland, New Hampshire where he married Lydia Howe in 1769. They then moved to Putney in the New Hampshire Grants (present-day Vermont).  In February of 1772, Maidenhead (now Guildhall), Vermont offered a bounty of 100 acres of land to anyone settling and improving it. Whitcomb and his family took advantage of the offer and moved there.

On April 10, 1772, he was made a Justice of the Peace in Gloucester County. Because of the character of frontier life and the distances and differences between northern Vermont and the settled coastland, the growing disagreements with England were slow to reach the upper Connecticut River Valley. Even with the outbreak of armed conflict in the Spring of 1775, little effect was felt in Maidenhead.

This soon changed in the Winter of 1775, when Generals Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery began their Campaign to capture Canada. On January 20, 1776, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted “to raise one regiment of soldiers forthwith” in addition to the three regiments already in Continental service. The regiment was given to Colonel Timothy Bedel and headquartered in Orford, New Hampshire.

Benjamin Whitcomb enlisted in Bedel’s regiment on January 22, 1776, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in Captain Samuel Young’s Company. Lieutenant Whitcomb was given the job of enlistment officer and as such, in March, remained in Orford when the regiment was ordered to join the Continental Army in Canada. It wasn’t until May that he left Orford with his recruits to rejoin Captain Young’s company.

By this stage of the Canadian campaign, the bulk of the Continental forces were exhausted, sick, and depleted, and the Continental Army was slowly retiring towards Crown Point. Lieutenant Whitcomb, with his recruits, finally rejoined Captain Young’s Company at Sorel, Quebec on June 2, 1776. By June 19, the major part of the Army had

reached Crown Point but Captain Young’s Company was part of the rearguard and was still at Isle Aux Soix, Quebec. On June 24, while part of the rearguard, Whitcomb was promoted to First Lieutenant. The retreat finally came to a halt in July and Bedel’s Regiment reported in on July 18, 1776.

Due to his experiences in the Champlain Valley during the Seven Years’ War, First Lieutenant Whitcomb was employed as a ranger and scout between Fort Ticonderoga and the enemy positions around Saint John’s and Montreal. It was on one of these scouting missions that Lieutenant Whitcomb was involved in one of the most notorious events of the War and one that served to make his name famous.

First Lieutenant Whitcomb had set out with two other men. One had become ill and had to return to Fort Ticonderoga, and the other deserted. In spite of being alone, Lieutenant Whitcomb stationed himself alongside the road between Saint John’s and La Prairie in order to observe the traffic. On July 24, 1776, a group consisting of a general field officer, his aides, and an escort came down the road. Whitcomb knew the officer was of high position but could not tell his exact rank. First Lieutenant Whitcomb took aim and fired. Because of the smoke and leaves, he could not tell where he hit the officer, only that he did in fact wound him. The escort immediately set out in pursuit but Whitcomb remained in the hollow until the men had rushed by. He then slipped down the bank to a stream and disappeared into the woods. It wasn’t until he returned to Fort Ticonderoga in early August that Whitcomb learned the full story of his shooting.

The officer was the commander of the First Brigade, Brigadier General Patrick Gordon.

On July 26, Major General William Phillips issued an order describing Whitcomb and telling British soldiers to hang him or any of his party captured. Later, on August 1, 1776, Brigadier General Patrick Gordon died of his wound sustained by First Lieutenant Whitcomb. Subsequently, Major General Carleton issued a reward of 50 guineas for Benjamin Whitcomb alive or dead. This was the highest reward offered for anyone during the entire War. The point of contention lay in that fact that the British asserted it was against all rules of war to shoot officers as Whitcomb had and demanded he be turned over. The retort of the Americans was that as long as the British used Indians, they had to expect retaliation. The threat of British vengeance seemed to have little or no effect on Whitcomb as he continued in action for the rest of the war.

As a result of his prowess as a ranger and scout, Major General Horatio Gates recommended to Congress on September 30, 1776, that First Lieutenant Benjamin Whitcomb be given command of two companies of fifty men to fight as rangers. The Regiment was authorized on October 15, 1776 in the Continental Army as Whitcomb’s Rangers, an element of the Northern Department. Congress adopted the following resolution: “In Congress Assembled – Resolved, That two independent Companies consisting of fifty Men each, be immediately raised to be commanded by Lieutenant Whitcomb, who should be appointed Captain Commandant – that he nominate the Officers of the said two Companies who are to be appointed, when approved by the commanding Officer of the Northern Department.”

Organization of Captain Whitcomb’s Rangers began in November 1776 at Fort Ticonderoga, New York.  The men were recruited primarily from northwestern New Hampshire. In the spring of 1777, the Rangers began fulfilling their role as scouts and raiders. They quickly built a reputation for their skill at scouting and raiding, primarily in small groups of from two to twenty men.

Captain Whitcomb and his Rangers were with the American Army as it was forced by the British to abandon Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence on July 6, 1777. They marched from Mt. Independence over 20 miles away to Hubbardton, and there fought a successful but costly rear guard action the next day on July 7, 1777. While considered a British victory, the Battle of Hubbardton had served its purpose for the Americans by giving the majority of the Army time to escape and regroup.

On August 16, 1777, Whitcomb and his men were part of an American force that fought a successful engagement at the Battle of Bennington under Brigadier General John Stark. Later in the Saratoga Campaign, Captain Whitcomb himself is reportedly the first person to have observed the approaching British army along Bemis Heights. When Burgoyne came up against the American positions at Freeman’s Farm on September 19, 1777, Whitcomb’s Rangers served with Lieutenant Colonel Dearborn’s Light Infantry Battalion and fought the first battle of Saratoga. After the battle, they were assigned to watch Burgoyne’s left flank until General Stark could move into position to cut off the British retreat.

Captain Whitcomb was promoted to Major on November 10, 1777, and the Rangers were eventually assigned to Rutland, Vermont. Since Major Whitcomb was the senior Continental Army officer in the area, he served as overall commander of Fort Ranger, and commanded several militia companies, another company of Continental Rangers, and a portion of Seth Warner’s Additional Regiment, the only other Continental troops in present-day Vermont.

As part of an army-wide reorganization, Whitcomb’s Rangers were ordered to disband on January 1, 1781. Major Whitcomb was ordered to send his non-commissioned officers and privates to join other Continental Army units and for the officers to be “deranged,” a contemporary term meaning that they were rendered supernumerary and could retire honorably. An appeal was made to General Washington but the original orders stood. Most of the former rangers became part of the New Hampshire Continental Line.

Now that Major Whitcomb was a civilian, he was free to do as he wished. He now brought his family to Coos, New Hampshire to settle down. Even though he was officially out of the War, there was still a price on his head. In early May, an Abenaki chief named Joseph Louis Gill left St. Francis with ten Indians. Their goal was to capture Whitcomb and claim the reward. On May 15, they surprised Whitcomb and Abel

Learned near Peacham and captured them, but Major Whitcomb escaped a few days later. Major Whitcomb continued to be of interest to British intelligence sources and they constantly maintained a watch on Whitcomb for the remainder of the war.

Major Whitcomb built the first frame house in Lisbon, New Hampshire in 1785. He was to become one of the town’s most prominent figures and at one time or another held most public offices.

Major Benjamin Whitcomb applied for a pension in 1818 and was awarded $240 a year. At the time of his application, he had personal property valued at only $49.74. Major Benjamin Whitcomb died on July 22, 1828, at the age of 91. He was buried next to his wife, who had died in 1823, and with many of his wartime comrades in the Salmon Hole Cemetery in Lisbon, New Hampshire.          

Sources: Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army (Baltimore, 1914), 430; Jeduthan Baldwin, The Revolutionary Journal of Col. Jeduthan Baldwin 1775-1778, ed. Thomas Williams Baldwin (Bangor, ME: The De Burians, 1906), 60; Frye Bailey, “Colonel Frye Bailey’s Reminiscences,” in Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society for the Years 1923, 1924 and 1925 (Bellows Falls, Vermont: Vermont Historical Society, 1926) , 55; Peter Force and M. St. Clair Clarke, eds. American Archives: Fifth Series (Washington, DC: 1848-1853), 1:828; William Digby. The British Invasion from the North. The Campaigns of Generals Carleton and Burgoyne from Canada, 1776-1777, Munsell’s Historical Series, No. 16. (Albany, NY: J. Munsell’s Sons, 1887), 129, Whitcomb apparently had two balls loaded in his musket, a not uncommon practice at the time; George F. G. Stanley, For Want of a Horse (Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada: Tribune Press, 1961), 79-80, 126. Thomas Anbury, With Burgoyne from Quebec, ed. Sydney J. Jackman (Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1963), 113 (A guinea is twenty-one shillings. A shilling is 12 pence. The base pay of a private was eight pence per day.  The reward therefore equaled 1575 days’ pay at the base rate of a private);  James Murray Hadden, Hadden’s Journal and Orderly Books, ed. Horatio Rogers (Albany, N.Y.: Munsell’s Sons, 1884); Charlotte Whitcomb, The Whitcomb family in America: a biographical genealogy, with a chapter on our English forbears “by the name of Whetcombe”. (Salem, Massachusetts: Higginson Book Co.); Rev. Henry H. Saunderson, History of Charlestown, NH – Fort 4 (Claremont, 1876); Selected Wartime Service Records of Major Benjamin Whitcomb, Jr..