In 1777, my fifth great grandfather, Sylvanus Ames, joined the Revolutionary War by serving as a chaplain, or so the story goes.
However there's a mystery here. Sylvanus Ames (1742-1778) graduated Harvard in 1767 with a Bachelor's degree. As was tradition, if one became a minister as Sylvanus did, he also received at the end of the third year in the ministry, his Master's.
After that initial service, the recipient of those degrees could stay in the ministry or go into some other field. Sylvanus Ames, decided to stay in the ministry and was the Rector Emeritus of the Trinity Episcopal Church in Taunton, Massachusetts. (Unfortunately, I can find no record of the church building at the present time.) He served from 1767 until he joined the Army of the Revolution.
Sylvanus's has been noted as a "chaplain." But that role has been questioned, so I kept looking for answers.
Sylvanus Ames was from a very prestigious family. The Ames were all over the place in Massachusetts, and Ames' family members, as well as their wives' male family members, were almost all officers in the military services. They were part of the "Bridgewater Ames"--the Ames family to which everyone wants to belong. Familiar names such as Watson, Hayward, Packard, Cheney, Lee, Johnson, Willis, Herrick and so on were part of his heritage. All were very much involved both militarily as well as philosophically in seeking freedom of religion and a break with England.
In 1777 in the late winter, Sylvanus is with George Washington and all the other patriots of that time at Valley Forge. He is not, however, where I expected him to be with the regiments of Massachusetts and serving as a staff officer. He is instead with the Rhode Island Regiment serving as a private and then a corporal. Chaplains were never anything but officers.
Since Sylvanus Ames was born in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, went to Harvard in Boston, was a rector at the church in Taunton. Nothing of record places him in Rhode Island. His family members all lived in Massachusetts. He had a wife and four children at home in Taunton. His father-in-law, Isaac Johnson, Sr. was a major in a Massachusetts Regiment.
And yet, at the overwintering stronghold of General George Washington and his troops, there he is living in the crudely built cabins of Valley Forge with little or no clothing, no shoes, no blankets, and no food-- as an enlisted private then corporal, and subject to, and eventually getting a disease, probably the flu or typhoid fever, and dying from it just before the Continental troops left to engage the British at the end of spring in 1778.
My husband and I visited Valley Forge a few years ago, and I had mistakenly looked for him with the Massachusetts soldiers. He was, instead, with those from Rhode Island.
It appears that he did not play a religious role in the way that I imagined.
In any event, I was looking for information about that winter at Valley Forge, and found two books, Writings from the Valley Forge Encampment of the Continental Army (December 19,1777 - June 19, 1778 collected by Joseph Lee Boyle as well as his newest endeavor, Death Seemed to Stare. The "writings" are mostly letters written by the officers at the Valley Forge encampment. These books are considered "primary" sources.
If one visits the Valley Forge site, the portrayal of the winter is not nearly as severe as it actually appears to have been. Stories about the cooks preparing bread in the afternoons as the troops returned home as a welcoming gesture cannot be true. This encampment hardly had enough food (flour, meat, etc.) to keep these men alive for most of the winter much less be used as an aromatic scent to welcome home the troops! And mostly they were inside those cabins trying to keep warm until the Spring when they could once again engage with the British who were sleeping warmly at night in nearby Philadelphia and taking comfort from those who still supported the British.
Regiments were particularly beholden to their own states for providing these necessities, and Rhode Island seems to have been terribly remiss in taking care of their soldiers! That's another question that I had, and for which there is a sad answer.
In reading the letters, mostly written by officers from the various states, there are several allusions in those letters to family members at home, to General Washington, or to the Quartermasters who should have been sending food to the troops, and to the fact that the Rhode Island regiment was in great need of clothing, blankets and food, and they didn't have those things.
Sylvanus' death date is May 15, 1778 just days before all the troops moved out to face the British. His death is noted on that date because he didn't show up for roll call that morning--a sort of unceremonious end for one who had accomplished so much in the prior years of his life. He is buried in a mass grave containing other such souls nearby to the encampment at Valley Forge. It is said that Washington had soldiers who were ill, removed to a hospital so that their illnesses would not spread and so that they would not cause the others to be depressed. I think that did not happen to Sylvanus. It would not have been noted that he "did not show up for roll call" if he had been moved to a hospital.
By all that's true for the times described here, Sylvanus should have been one of the officers, (whose living conditions were much better than those of a private), but instead, he suffered with all the others, and not among friends, and receiving no special favors. At the very least, he should have been serving as a chaplain in the cabin where he resided.
As a descendant of this young man (he was only 34 that year), I have to wonder at his predicament. At first I thought there was no way to know why he did what he did. I had guessed, based upon what I knew of him, that he served in that capacity because his religion spoke to him and caused him to help where he thought he was needed. After reading the two books mentioned above, it appears that my guesses about Sylvanus Ames were on the right track. The two books mentioned above reveal the fact that the First Rhode Island Regiment was composed of “blacks and Indians and a few whites.”
The underlying truth is that Rhode Island passed a law in the late 1770’s that created the First Rhode Island Regiment as a mostly Black regiment. The motivation would have been that while the Continental Congress demanded that States send troops, they didn’t say who had to serve, and so giving freedom to those who did not have it (Blacks and Indians) in exchange for military service seemed to appeal to the Rhode Island legislators! It also provided a way for Rhode Island Whites to skip such service.
These facts also explain Rhode Island’s reticence in sending food, clothing, blankets and other supplies for their troops at Valley Forge which directly resulted in their extraordinary levels of disease which killed a great many of them.
Sylvanus Ames was simply making a statement about slavery and its consequences when he decided to pitch his fate with those of the “freed” Blacks and Indians in those cold cabins of Valley Forge.
When he "didn't show up for roll call" on May 15, 1778, he left a wife and four young children to survive him.
Mary Knight McGarr
Fifth great grand-daughter of Sylvanus Ames
May 31, 2017