Life often exhibits some inexplicable twists and turns not planned or expected. Perhaps none are so self-evident than the experiences of those who’ve served in the military. There are numerous accounts of individuals who survived horrendous battles while suffering through insurmountable odds, with death staring them in the face, only to have perished or died in peacetime in unexpected and often violent ways. Revolutionary War veterans are simply one example of such bizarre encounters with life and death as revealed by the following examples.
Lt. Col. Francis Barber, a native of Princeton, New Jersey, served with distinction during the American Revolution, having participated in the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, and was present at the battle of Yorktown, Virginia, with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis. He also was part of the famous Sullivan Indian Expedition of 1779 and later served as the leader of a battalion of light infantry.
Though Col. Barber had an outstanding military career, contemporary newspapers such as the Pennsylvania Gazette, The New-Jersey Gazette, and others relate how Col. Barber of the New Jersey Line “was killed by the most extraordinary accident,” while riding his horse on February 11, 1783. On the way to his quarters, he came upon some soldiers in the act of felling trees. As he rode opposite the woodcutters, one large tree “struck him on the head, and killed him in a minute.” The tree is described as being very tall, and the root being “some distance from the path…the soldiers did not see him till he was directly opposite; they cried out, he stopped sudden, and began to turn round his horse, but before he got round he received the fatal stroke.”
As one eyewitness declared of the event: “Heaven saw proper by that accident to deprive America of one of her most valuable men, why or wherefore we cannot tell. I saw him in three minutes after he was struck down, but he was entirely breathless.” Barber had been promoted to Colonel of the Second New Jersey Regiment only one month before his death.
Various newspapers in March and April 1783 speak of the death of Col. John Stewart of the Maryland Line in the Continental Army. Stewart had been taken prisoner by the British on Staten Island, New York, and received a silver medal for leading two assaults in the Battle of Stony Point.
Col. Stewart, like Col. Barber, met with a disastrous accident returning from an “evening for the officers” given by George Washington. While riding home, “his horse fell, and the Colonel pitching on his head in a ditch, dislocated his neck.” The Philadelphia Gazette reported, “This gentleman, whose untimely death is much to be lamented, had served with great reputation during the war, and was much beloved by the army.”
The July 12, 1820, edition of the Colombian Centinel relays the tragic death of William Whipple. Whipple was a Rhode Island resident who served as an officer within both the Army and Navy of Rhode Island during the Revolution. On July 4, he “was run over by some unfeeling John, on the anniversary of that Independence for which he fought, had his thigh broken, and died the next day.”
The American Pioneer & Military Chronicle, published in Philadelphia, tells of the death of a “Revolutionary Pensioner from Assault” in September of 1831. One day while in Mrs. Okane’s store, an intoxicated man named William Lackey placed his arms around the owner’s neck in a flirtatious manner. Peter Turner, an elderly Revolutionary War veteran, scolded Lackey on his improper conduct.
Lackey “in a rage…seized hold of Turner and jerked him off the stoop, by which his head struck violently on the side walk, which broke his scull.” The old soldier died later that night. Lackey was found guilty of third degree manslaughter and sentenced to the state prison for three years.
Thus are the ironies of life. One never knows what life has in store for each of us, regardless of our past actions, but it’s those uncertainties that help bring diversity and variety to our lives. If nothing else, the above accounts reveal that life is precarious. We should use the time that we have on Earth wisely and with honor as did these men, though they each had trials or tribulations they did not expect.