Children of the Revolution


     He was just five years old. The men of the town had gone off in search of the army; the women and children had fled into the pine swamps outside of town. After trudging a little more than a mile from their homes, the women stopped to rest and consider what their next move would be. In the midst of the confusion the young boy slipped away from the group with the intention of returning to his home. He may have been trying to get back to his father as young boys would be wont to do. He got within a short distance of the British right flank when the shrill sound of their bugles drove him into retreat, back to his mother and the rest of the women and children from the town.
    It was June 28, 1778 and John Van Cleve’s wife and children along with the other residents of Freehold, New Jersey had been driven from the town by the incursion of the British Army. The Battle of Monmouth was on. John’s young son, Benjamin, taken by his mother into the pine swamps, had yet to grasp the full gravity of his family’s circumstances when he tried to return to his home. It became clearer to him when his family returned to town the next day after the British had moved out. Four decades later when he penned his memoirs from his home in Dayton, Ohio as one of its original settlers, Benjamin Van Cleve described what he had seen as a boy of five upon returning to his decimated hometown in the throes of the Revolutionary War:

    On the retreat of the enemy the inhabitants returned and found with few exceptions the buildings for some distance around in our neighborhood burnt, the naked chimneys standing, great part of the trees in some orchards cut down, the woods burnt, and property that had been hid, destroyed or carried away. The earth was strewn with dead carcasses sufficient to have produced a pestilence. My father had neither a shelter for his family, nor bread for them, nor clothes to cover them save what we had on.

    When John Van Cleve and Catherine Benham-Van Cleve were forced out of their Monmouth County, New Jersey home in 1778, they had, in addition to their son Benjamin, a daughter, Anna, who was three years old, and an infant daughter, Margaret “Peggy” Van Cleve, who was just four months old. The mother and infant daughter hiding from the British in the pine swamps outside of Freehold, New Jersey in 1778 would a century later come to be known as the great-great-grandmother


Children of the Revolution


and great-grandmother of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Two decades hence, Catherine Benham-Van Cleve would be the first woman to come ashore at the site of the settlement of Dayton, Ohio in April of 1796.
    Forewarned that the British were on a track to pass through Freehold on their way to the coast from Philadelphia, families evacuated the town. The forces of General George Washington had been strategically tracking the troops of British General Henry Clinton from just to their north. It was anticipated that they would cross paths in Freehold. When John Van Cleve and his brothers reached the revolutionary forces, they acted as guides to separate companies of riflemen from Washington’s forces who encountered the British that day. The troops of the Continental Army were coming off the long winter holding up at Valley Forge twenty miles northeast of Philadelphia. After a spring of training under new commanders, notably the German Baron Von Steuben, they were prepared by early summer to retest their mettle against the British.


General George Washington

General George Washington


    It had been three years since George Washington had taken over command of the Continental Army, shortly after fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord. The war had been going badly overall for the revolutionaries, but of recent times, the tide had turned in their favor. Just the previous fall, in October of 1777, the Continental Army made a concerted show of force against the British at the Battle of Germantown outside of Philadelphia. At the same time, the northern faction of the


Children of the Revolution


Continental Army, under General Horatio Gates, had forced the surrender of British General John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga up in New York State. John Van Cleve, a captain with the New Jersey militia, fought at the Battle of Germantown under General David Forman who was under General George Washington. These battles ultimately precipitated the encounter in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
    The British had seized Philadelphia, the first capitol of the revolutionary states, on September 26, 1777. Intent on pursuing the routed American troops, the British divided their forces, leaving part to defend Philadelphia, with another force setting out for Germantown, twenty miles to the northwest. With a pared down British force pursuing him, General Washington saw it as an opportunity for a confrontation. He decided to attack the British at Germantown on the morning of October 4. The New Jersey militia with Captain John Van Cleve in its ranks made up one of the four columns that attacked the British at Germantown. In the end the American forces came up short in the encounter, but it was their aggressiveness in counter attacking the British that earned them the respect of foreign governments.
    At the same time that Washington was engaging the British at Germantown, in the first week of October 1777, the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates was confronting the British under General Burgoyne up in Saratoga County, in New York State. A formidable contribution to General Gates’ strength during the battle of Saratoga came from the militia of the state of Connecticut. Six weeks before the encounter, on August 25, 1777, a young man of twenty years from Lebanon, Connecticut affixed his signature to the roster of the Connecticut militia. His name was Dan Wright.
    Dan Wright was born in Lebanon, Connecticut on April 7, 1757. In 1777, one year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the young man whose family had a formidable history in the colonies of America had signed on to defend the independence of the colonies from their progenitors. When the Declaration of Independence was authored in 1776, the family of Dan Wright had already been in America for well over one hundred years. Dan Wright’s great-great-grandfather Samuel Wright settled in Springfield, Massachusetts before 1637, less than twenty years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. He was among the men who established Springfield Township, Massachusetts. Dan Wright descended from Samuel his great-great-grandfather through Samuel’s second son James, through James’ fifth child Samuel, through Samuels’ tenth child Benoni, who was Dan Wright’s father.


Children of the Revolution


    When Dan Wright joined the Connecticut militia in 1777, it was in response to a threat from the British coming down into New York State out of Canada. British forces under General John Burgoyne planned to come down through New York State to cut the colonies in half and divide the forces of the Continental Army. In need of resurgence, Congress appointed General Horatio Gates to lead the army against Burgoyne’s forces. New England volunteers poured out in support of General Gates. He led a force of over 10,000 into New York State with Dan Wright, who was in Colonel Latimer’s Connecticut Regiment, among them. They engaged in two battles: one on September 19 at Freeman’s farm and another on October 9 at Bemis Heights, both part of the Saratoga Campaign.
    At Bemis Heights, it was the strategic creation of fortifications and positioning of troops by the Polish engineer and general, Thaddeus Kosciusko that helped to create a significant advantage for the Continental Army. After the war Kosciusko was awarded five hundred acres of land in Ohio on the Scioto River near the future town of Columbus. Today a park named after the Polish general is situated on part of his land in Dublin, Ohio. The British were turned back at Bemis Heights, and while in retreat General Burgoyne ultimately surrendered his troops to General Gates at Saratoga on October 17.
    The Record of the Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service during the War of Revolution, prepared under the authorization of the Adjutant General of Connecticut, contains a review of the Connecticut militia’s service in the Saratoga Campaign:

    Two large regiments of militia, composed of detachments from all the brigades, were ordered to re-enforce General Gates at Saratoga in the summer of 1777. They were assigned to General Poor’s Continental Brigade in Arnold’s Division and fought in both the battles with the enemy, September 19th and October 9, 1777. In the first battle they lost more than any two other regiments in the field. Upon their dismissal after the surrender of Burgoyne, General Gates spoke of them as, “the two excellent militia regiments from Connecticut” . They were commanded by Colonels Jonathan Latimer of New London, and Thaddeus Cook of Wallingford.

    The successes at Saratoga and Germantown had a strong influence on the French government. John Fisk in his two volume study The American Revolution, published in 1891, observed: “The French court in making up its mind that the Americans would prove efficient allies is said to have been influenced almost as much by the Battle of


Children of the Revolution


Germantown as by the surrender of Burgoyne.” On February 6, 1778 the French government, considering the American show of military grit, acknowledged the independence of the United States and promised military aid. It was the French entry into the war that brought the British through Freehold, New Jersey the following summer.
    After Dan Wright’s service in the Saratoga Campaign, his regiment was discharged and he returned to his home in Lebanon, Connecticut. Another seven years down the road, Dan Wright would marry and settle down to raise a family. He would live and work as a carpenter and farmer in Orange County, Vermont. In later years he would move his family to Ohio to settle, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century he would be known as the great-grandfather of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Dan Wright would live the latter years of his life in Bethel Township, Miami County, Ohio.
    In March of 1778, one month after the French recognized the United States of America, the British began to make plans to evacuate Philadelphia. They determined that by consolidating their forces at New York, they could better defend against the entry of the French into the war. On June 18, 1778 the British commander-in-chief General Henry Clinton began moving his troops across New Jersey to Sandy Hook on the coast, where they would be ferried to New York. In response, General George Washington moved his troops out of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to track the British across New Jersey, just to the north of Clinton’s forces. It was then that their paths crossed at Freehold, New Jersey and the Battle of Monmouth County ensued, forcing young Benjamin Van Cleve from his home.
    A testament to the memory of Benjamin Van Cleve regarding his experiences as a five year old, some four decades after the fact, comes in an account from the History of the Old Tennent Church of Monmouth County by Reverend Frank R. Symmes. “During the times of the Battle, families in Old Tennent congregation and others in the vicinity suffered at the hands of the British, who, it is said, burnt the homes of Dr. Thomas Henderson, Benjamin Covenhoven, George Walker, Hannah Solomon, Benjamin Van Cleve, David Covenhaven, and Garret Vanderveer, and destroyed the home of John Benham and others beside.”
    John Van Cleve was living in the family home of his father Benjamin in 1778 when the British came through Freehold. He had taken up the trade of his father as a blacksmith. His father, Benjamin Van Cleve Sr., had passed away three years earlier on July 3, 1775. The iron work in the historic Old Tennent Church of Monmouth County bore the mark of the senior Van Cleve. Again from History of Old Tennent


Children of the Revolution


Church: “Benjamin Van Cleve, whose initials are stamped in the iron bars or latches of the east and west doors, is reported to have made the iron furnishings of the church, such as nails, door-hinges, latches, and possibly the weather vane or finial on the steeple, a study itself. These presumably were all forged out on his anvil.” John Van Cleve would carry the skills learned from his father to the Northwest Territory in years down the road. The last in the above list of homes destroyed by the British was the home of John Benham. John was the older brother of John Van Cleve’s wife Catherine Benham-Van Cleve.
    Much of the early life of the children of John and Catherine Van Cleve was spent in the setting of the Revolutionary War. When the United States and Great Britain would sign the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783, young Benjamin Van Cleve would be ten years of age. His sisters, Anna and Margaret, would be eight and five years old respectively, and their brother William, born in December of 1781, would be near two years old. The impact of the war seen first hand in the lives of the adults in their family and in their town was a staple of their lives. Their father had been away for long periods of time with the New Jersey militia over the course of the war. Their Uncle Robert Benham, an older brother of their mother, was also heavily involved in the war. Few families were left untouched by the effects of the war once the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.
    For decades and decades, stories had been told in the colonies along the Atlantic Coast about the riches of the country inland from the coast by venturers returning east. One of the most notable expanses of land being lauded was above the great river beyond the mountains west from the coast. In the early years of colonization, the great river was referred to by its Indian name Oyo. The name of the river and the land to the north of it over time morphed into the anglicized Ohio.
    In the fall of 1779, one year after the Battle of Monmouth, Catherine Benham-Van Cleve’s brother, Captain Robert Benham, was a member of an expedition sent down the Ohio River from Ft. Pitt (the future site of Pittsburgh), to secure gunpowder from the Spanish at St. Louis. Their return upriver from St. Louis precipitated an event involving Captain Benham which was so unusual that its retelling has become a part of Ohio River Valley lore. An account of the story reprinted in The History of Warren County Ohio (W.H. Beers Co. 1882), from the publication Western Adventures is prefaced with the line, “Strange as this story is, its truthfulness has been endorsed by Judge Burnet and other careful historians.” …..


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