By Lee S. Harford Jr.
Vol. 113 No. 3, Winter 2018-2019
Over the last century, historians produced volumes on the role of the senior leaders in the conflict we refer to today as the American Revolutionary War, or the American War of Independence. Not much was written about the lower-ranking Patriot ancestors, who today actually constitute the ties for most compatriots of the SAR. Yet these junior officers, and the sergeants and enlisted men of all ranks, were the ones who actually manned the battle lines, fighting, dying and suffering daily for months or years on end to gain independence for our country, in order to create the land of opportunity we so love today. This article covers the military service of one of these forgotten heroes: Capt. Daniel Allen of the Connecticut Continental Line.
Capt. Daniel Allen’s involvement in the Revolution began with the Ashford Company of the Connecticut militia.
When the news of the April 19, 1775, skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts reached Windham County in Connecticut on April 20— called the “Lexington Alarm”—Capt. Thomas Knowlton immediately mustered the Ashford Company of the Connecticut militia and marched them to Boston. Daniel Allen (1742-1828) went with them as a sergeant. Approximately 4,000 militiamen and townsmen from across Connecticut also journeyed to support their Massachusetts brothers. Some of these companies returned, since their presence was not needed, but the Ashford Company stayed and would soon be involved in one of the most significant events in American history. Allen remained a sergeant for only 10 days.
On May 1, 12 days after the firing of “the shot heard around the world” at Lexington, Allen received a commission as a lieutenant in Knowlton’s newly established 5th Company of Col. Israel Putnam’s 3rd Connecticut Regiment. A special session of the Connecticut assembly had ordered the formation of this infantry regiment, together with five others, in order to help defend New England against possible British aggression. These six regiments consisted of approximately 6,000 volunteers with an obligated six-month service period (to December 10). The 3rd Connecticut Regiment, as a part of the first call for troops, was raised in Windham County, where Allen resided in the town of Ashford. There, he had married Mary Sumner (1741-1781) in 1764 and fathered a daughter, Azubah (1766-1849), whom he named after his mother. Allen’s regiment took up a position at Cambridge in May to support the siege of Boston, where the British forces had been pent up since the Lexington engagement.
Inside Boston, British Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage responded by declaring martial law on June 12 and made plans to attack the rebels at four points to break the siege: Dorchester Heights, Roxbury, Charlestown and Cambridge. Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward commanded the hastily gathered New England forces encircling Boston, officially called The Army of Observation by the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. Ward learned of Gage’s plans and attempted to preempt them by fortifying the heights on the Charlestown peninsula. Consequently, at approximately 9 p.m. on June 16, Allen’s unit (Knowlton’s 5th Company) joined three others from Massachusetts in digging and defending an entrenched position with artillery on the heights of Breed’s Hill, which rose across the Charles River north of Boston. At 4 a.m. on June 17, the British warship Lively spotted the earthworks and started to bombard the position, soon to be joined by the guns of nine more ships, and by 9 a.m., the British artillery battery on Copp’s Hill in north Boston had opened fire on the unfinished fieldworks. The British had good reason to eliminate the American position on Breed’s Hill, since the guns emplaced there could easily fire on and sink the Royal Navy ships and transports anchored and docked in Boston Harbor.
With the sky raining iron, Ward reinforced the position with two New Hampshire and nine Massachusetts regiments and two batteries of artillery. These troops helped to man the fortifications and also to extend a line of battle outside of the earthworks to the north and south. In the early afternoon, Gage landed 3,500 troops and 12 guns onto the southeast end of the peninsula. The British forces then launched a series of three assaults on the 4,000 Americans defending Breed’s Hill during the famous, misnamed Battle of Bunker Hill, suffering approximately 1,000 casualties; the American losses were nearly 500. During the battle, Knowlton’s 100-man company, with two field guns, occupied a position on the extreme left of the Breed’s Hill’s L-shaped line of entrenched positions: composed from right to left of a redoubt, a breastwork and, finally, a row of three fleches. Allen’s unit fought outside the northeast wth only the rail fence for cover in the sector of the battlefield against which the main British assaults were launched. Launching three bloody assaults, the British finally forced the American defenders off the hill. After helping to cover the retreat of most other American units from the peninsula, Allen, together with Knowlton’s company, retired to Cambridge.
The Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, meanwhile, had officially taken over control of the New England forces around Boston, renaming them the “Continental Army” and appointing Lt. Gen. George Washington as the commander in chief. He arrived near Boston to assume command on July 2, and soon after, Allen’s 3rd Connecticut Regiment, still holding a part of the siege line near Cambridge, was adopted by the Congress as a Continental Army unit. Then, upon the expiration of its term of service in December, it was reorganized and redesignated on Jan. 1, 1776, as the 20th Continental Regiment. It became one of the newly constituted 26 standard infantry regiments that made up the main Continental Army, all with a service period of one year (to Dec. 31). The records indicate that Allen, together with many other volunteers, went home with his tour of duty completed to take care of family affairs. Meanwhile, Washington positioned heavy cannon on Dorchester Heights, southeast of Boston, on March 3 within range of the ships in Boston Harbor, causing the British to evacuate the port on March 17 and sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Continental Artillery regiment had dragged these guns through the wilderness from Fort Ticonderoga, nearly 150 miles to the northwest specifically for that purpose.
Then, on June 10, Allen received a new captain’s commission, signed by the Congress’ president John Hancock, to serve in Col. Andrew Ward’s Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army. Congress authorized this new unit in order to expand the defensive forces in New England. At the same time, the Congress began to debate independence, and Washington completed the move and concentration of the main Continental Army of 19,000 to 28,000 troops from recently liberated Boston down to defend the vitally strategic port city of New York. During the period June 25-28, the fleet of Lt. Gen. William Howe arrived at the mouth of the Hudson River with 9,000 royal troops. By mid-August, he had massed 25,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors and 400 ships to attack New York City. On July 4, 1776, the Congress in Philadelphia declared the independence of the United States. A month later, on Aug. 1, Capt. Allen’s regiment received orders to join the main army. His regiment had just been recruited in Hartford, Windham and New Haven counties that summer with a one-year term of service. Allen’s company with Ward’s regiment arrived on Aug. 21 to the north of New York City, joining Brig. Gen. Thomas Mifflin’s Brigade of Major Gen. William Heath’s Division. Ward’s command occupied a defensive position at Burdett’s Landing, located just below strategic Fort Constitution (renamed Fort Lee in September) on the west bank of the Hudson River. Burdett’s Ferry had been taken over by the army and served as the supply line and the only link to Fort Washington on the opposite bank.
Allen crossed the Delaware on the night of Dec. 25, 1776, and marched along the Bear Tavern Road with the rest of Washington’s small command of 2,400 Continentals.
To the south, a major battle soon developed on Long Island, where on Aug. 27, British Lt. Gen. Howe launched a major attack on the exposed left flank of the Continental battle line and surprised the Americans. Washington’s front collapsed, he lost the battle, and two days later, he evacuated the island at night by crossing over to Manhattan Island (New York City). Two weeks later, with the British Army and Navy poised to land a force on the island and trap a large portion of the American army, Washington evacuated the city, isolated on the southern tip of Manhattan, fell back northward along his line of communications, and concentrated his new defense line on Harlem Heights, closer to forts Lee and Washington. Meanwhile, Howe made an amphibious attack midpoint on the island at Kips Bay on Sept. 15 and routed the American defenders along the shoreline. The next day, part of Howe’s force launched a probing attack north on the Harlem position, while the rest of the British Army occupied New York City to the south. The most strategically important point on the east coast, New York City, fell to the British, and the revolutionary cause suffered a serious defeat.
Since mid-August, both the British Army and Navy had held the initiative and defeated Washington’s forces in one engagement after another. At the same time, the Continental Army changed in organization as it melted away due to the end of enlistments, sickness, desertions and casualties. The “summer soldier and sunshine patriot” went home as the war took a serious turn toward lethality and brutality on the battlefields around New York City. Consequently, after the Battle of Harlem Heights, Washington reorganized his forces into seven divisions. On Sept. 18, Ward’s Regiment with Allen’s company was reassigned to Col. Paul D. Sargent’s Brigade of Heath’s Division. The regiment had moved to Fordham Manor on Rose Hill (today Fordham University) on Sept. 13 to help defend the strategic Kings Bridge Crossing, which connected the mainland onto Manhattan Island. In the Battle of White Plains, fought 15 miles to the northeast of King’s Bridge from Oct. 28 until Nov. 10, Allen’s division defended the right-center of the battle line until the army withdrew and divided into thirds to defend against all possible advances by the enemy. During this period, 16 miles southwest of White Plains, back at Fort Lee, Common Sense author Thomas Paine began writing a pamphlet entitled The American Crisis to revive the spirit for the revolutionary cause with the inspiring opening phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
On Nov. 20, in a desperate attempt to save the army, Washington ordered the separated divisional columns to execute a rapid retreat southwest and consolidate to defend New Jersey and the American capital in Philadelphia. The best regiments in the British Army, commanded by the aggressive Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, relentlessly pursued the exhausted and dwindling Continental Army columns in an attempt to destroy them and end the Revolution but without success. A month later, on Dec. 20 following a difficult march through the hills of northwestern New Jersey, Allen arrived with Ward’s Regiment of Sargent’s Brigade now of Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s Division at the new defense line. Washington arrayed the remnants of the main Continental Army along the west bank of the Delaware River to cover the ferry crossings toward Philadelphia; these positions were located between 7 to 12 miles east and southeast of Buckingham, Bucks County, Penn. As the decimated and demoralized American soldiers waited, cold and hungry, for the British to cross the river and finish off the Continental Army, on Dec. 23, Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis was sold throughout American encampments along the Delaware River for two pennies a copy. It proclaimed that the success of the Revolution now hung in the balance and that the moment of decision for all real Patriots had arrived. Such logic motivated many soldiers to maintain their resolve to continue the fight for independence. In fact, the period of enlistment for most of the army would end in six days, and they could then legally go home, unless they re-enlisted for another year or more.
Then, as part of Washington’s daring plan to stave off annihilation, Allen crossed the treacherous, ice-choked Delaware River at McConkey’s Ferry, Penn., a with Sullivan’s Division on the night of Dec. 25 and marched eight miles through snowstorms to launch a surprise attack on the expected 3,000-man Hessian garrison wintering at Trenton, N.J. (actually, the garrison strength was 1,383 men). After crossing the river, Sullivan’s troops marched in darkness along the Bear Tavern Road with the rest of Washington’s small command of only 2,400 Continentals. At the village of Birmingham, it split off to approach Trenton from the northwest along the River Road. Upon arriving at the southwestern end of the town in the early morning sunlight, this column quickly fought its way through the Hessian defenses and seized the bridge across the Assunpink Creek to block the enemy’s escape route to the southeast. Sargent’s Brigade then took a position on the south bank of the creek to help entrap the enemy.
The success of this action during the Battle of Trenton allowed for the first significant American victory since the fall of Boston. Although Washington crossed back over the Delaware to the safety of Pennsylvania that same day, he turned around and repeated the river crossing operation again on Dec. 29-30. This next surprise movement gained another victory for the Americans at the Second Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton during the period of Jan. 2-3, 1777. It is probable that Allen participated in these actions with Ward’s Regiment of Brig. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s Brigade of Sullivan’s Division. It was Sullivan’s command that launched the final attack on Nassau Hall and the enemy breastworks on the grounds of Princeton College which forced the British retreat. These tactical successes had a significant strategic impact by destroying the British image of invincibility, preserving the Continental Army, and saving the Revolution from collapse.
After the Battle of Princeton, Washington marched the army to Morristown, N.J., to rest and refit during the winter. While still serving with Ward’s Regiment at Morristown, on Feb. 1, 1777, the Connecticut assembly appointed Daniel Allen a company captain in Col. John Durkee’s 20th Continental Line, the old 3th Connecticut Regiment from Windham County with which Allen had served a year before, during the siege of Boston. Approximately 100 soldiers of Durkee’s regiment had agreed to serve an additional six weeks after the regiment’s term of enlistment expired at the end of 1776. Research suggests that Allen was given command of this discharged remnant of the 20th Regiment in order to bring it home from Morristown to be joined with another newly raised regiment. This is based on the fact that prior to this, Allen had accepted a captain’s commission on January 1 to serve in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line, organized from January through April at Hartford, to consist of eight companies from Hartford and Windham counties and commanded by Col. Samuel Wylly. The regiment was assigned to Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Person’s 1st Brigade of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam’s Division, which defended the Hudson Highlands, through which the Hudson River passed. With the loss of New York City, this area became the strategic key terrain for the war effort, since it connected New England and the Middle States logistically. Putnam’s command of 1,200 Continentals, supported by militia, occupied defenses on the east bank of the Hudson around Peekskill and Fort Independence, N.Y. Allen’s regiment served there from May 1777 to January 1778.
During this period, the British attempted to seize control of the Hudson River Valley and isolate New England from the other states, thus making the Northeast United States more vulnerable to conquest. Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne initiated the British offensive operation on June 13 with an invasion from the vicinity of Montreal, Canada, down Lake Champlain and the Hudson to occupy Albany, N.Y. When his army became stalled south of Saratoga in late September, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton advanced another British army on Oct. 3 northward up the river from New York City to relieve him. Upon reaching the Highland defenses, Clinton landed an overwhelming force and threatened to attack the American positions around the village of Peekskill. Putnam retired his command temporarily into the hills for safety and maintained an observation of the British movements. Two weeks later, on Oct. 17, Burgoyne surrendered his command at Saratoga before Clinton’s relief could reach him, and Clinton’s forces then retired back to New York City. In this operation, Allen spent most of his time marching from one location to another to shadow the British advance. The decisive defeat of Burgoyne’s army became a turning point in the war because it convinced the French that the American Colonists were staunchly committed to separation from Britain.
In January 1778, Person’s Brigade took up positions at West Point, N.Y., where they later constructed permanent earthworks to control any future movement by enemy warships on the Hudson River. Allen’s company assisted the rest of Wylly’s Regiment in constructing one of these fortifications from April to August. “Fort Wylly” served as an infantry redoubt, pentagonal in shape with a perimeter of eighty-six yards, which mounted three cannons to defend against any landward attack of the water batteries. Today, Fort Wylly is the best preserved of the Revolutionary War fortifications on West Point, where the United States Military Academy is located. Upon completion of the fort, Allen’s regiment marched east and encamped back at White Plains, N.Y., during the autumn with Washington’s main Continental Army. After wintering at Redding, Conn., the regiment served in 1779 with Major Gen. Heath’s Division in the Hudson Highlands, again on the east side of the Hudson River.
When the 3rd Connecticut reorganized into nine companies in July 1779, Allen left active service. Once back home, he commanded the company of Connecticut State Militia from the towns of Ashford and Canterbury until the end of the war. At the time of his transition from active service to the militia, the war had taken a positive turn. The fighting in the northern region had stalemated, and on Feb. 6, 1778, France had officially recognized and entered the war in a military alliance with the United States to support the Colonists’ quest for independence. More and more, the British military forces available in the past to attack the Americans were committed elsewhere to defend the worldwide empire against the French. At the same time, French warships and soldiers arrived in New England to fight alongside the Americans. To the people of Connecticut, the crisis seemed, for the time being, to have passed.
On the great stage of war, Allen performed with determination in nearly every major act, from Bunker Hill to Saratoga. He was a true Patriot who in a time of national crisis, courageously moved with his fellow soldiers across the ground we hallow today to make the democratic concept a reality. The devotion of these Continental soldiers, together with the sustained leadership of such officers as Allen, saved the Revolution and ultimately the republic. I am proud to know that my ancestor was present at these pivotal events that changed the world. His patriotism proves that each of us can make a difference if we serve a just cause with absolute commitment. Allen is one of my fifth great-grandfathers, and it is an honor to represent him, together with all my other Revolutionary War Patriot ancestors, as a member of the SAR