Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ebenezer Wild Papers Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 9

Ebenezer Wild Papers

by David Swain

Biographical information

Ebenezer Wild was a native of Braintree, MA, born in 1758 and died in 1794 (at age 36). He served in the Continental Army throughout the Revolutionary War, rising from a corporal in 1775 to a 2nd lieutenant in 1781. In 1776, he was assigned to the 6th Continental Regiment. From 1777 onward, he was in the 1st Massachusetts Regiment.

Manuscript Documents

The microfilmed manuscripts from the Massachusetts Historical Society contain several different kinds of writings, including:

-- A daily diary written in seven notebooks with entries between August 7, 1776 and October 24, 1779 (with a break between January 2 and April 8, 1777 and several other gaps of a day or a few days) and from February 19 through December 8, 1781. Whether or not Wild wrote additional entries in notebooks that have been lost is not clear. During these years, Wild was between 18 and 23 years old and was serving as a common soldier in the Massachusetts Militia as a part of the American Revolutionary Army.

-- A few disconnected diary notes with dates between October 14, 1790 and November 10, 1792.

-- Handwritten copies of two public documents plus a troop chart concerning the siege of York (Yorktown to us) and Gloucester in October 1781 and subsequent capitulation of Cornwallis.

-- A few undated romantic poems apparently written by Wild.

-- Handwritten copies of a number of public documents with dates between December 1, 1782 and April 19, 1783 concerning army unrest and demands for compensation and General Washington’s “Newburgh Address” to his army officers in response to these demands.


The diary makes up most of the manuscript pages on the microfilm.

In general, it has both strong and weak points. On the strong side:

-- Especially from 1776 to 1779, it tells of the day-by-day life of a “grunt” in the military, a story that often is overlooked in both historical research and literary writing. Wild’s perspective, looking at a war from the bottom up and inside out, is instructive and helps to balance the “Hollywood” view of warfare that focuses on extreme violence, heroic bravery, and strategic maneuvers and outcomes.

-- As the daily written output of a “kid,” the diary is remarkable in the perseverance and consistency of effort it demonstrates.

-- The writing style and length of daily entries change considerably during the time the diary was written. As Wild matured from greenhorn to veteran in the Revolutionary Army, and from a kid of 18 to a young man of 23, he learned a good deal about what was important to include in daily diary entries and about how to express himself in writing. Although I did not find specific evidence, it is also possible (probable?) that he rose in the ranks to some sort of junior officer level by the 1780s (see below), thus gaining access to more information and a broader perspective on his daily activities.

-- Wild participated in a number of important military operations during the Revolutionary War (Lake George and Ticonderoga 1776, Saratoga 1777, Monmouth and Rhode Island 1778, and Yorktown (1781), thus providing one man’s perspective on these events.

On the weak side:

-- Large sections of Wild’s diary are either virtually illegible or extremely difficult to decipher. Several causes appear to contribute to this problem (not including the quality of microfilming which appears to be adequate):

-- The diary was written in the field by a foot soldier whose life included frequent marches, sleeping in a tent, and enduring a great deal of inclement weather. Some pages suffer from ink blotches, on many more the handwriting is very faint or has become quite faded, lines often are not straight, and the handwriting often becomes something of a scrawl.

-- As an 18-year-old, Wild apparently had a limited education, as evidenced by his exceedingly “creative” and inconsistent use of spelling and sentence phrasing. These irregularities (for the modern reader) further exacerbate the challenge of deciphering the diary entries. By 1781, he must have learned a lot about writing as well as other things, and his army life seems to have become less rough, if not more settled. His handwriting, spelling, and phrasing are all substantially improved by this time.

-- Entries between 1776 and 1779 reflect Wild’s youth in their brevity, limited content, and lack of understanding (or at least lack of inclusion) of the larger context of his regiment’s daily activities and life. Only by 1781 do the entries begin to read like informed summaries of what of importance had happened each day. As a result, much of the diary is historically “boring” in the sense that modern readers learn little of interest about the Revolutionary War events in which Wild directly participated—as a “grunt.” Entry after entry between 1776 and 1779 is limited to summarizing the weather in a few words, describing the breaking of camp in the morning, marching from one place to another during the day, and setting up camp again in the evening. On a fair number of non-marching days and even some marching days, entries are even shorter, with a brief weather description followed by the words “nothing remarkabel today” occasionally spelled “remarkable”). By 1781, he had learned the word “extraordinary” and used that in place of “remarkable.”

Several specific points:

-- In addition to marching and the setup and breakdown of camp, Wild’s entries also describe, or at least mention, guard duty, illnesses, punishments for soldier misconduct (floggings but also hangings—a couple of times reprieved at the last moment), occasional losses of men to the Indians or of prisoners captured. Through 1779, however, the diary does not describe military movements as part of an organized campaign. It reflects only the daily activities of Wild and the men around him. On the other hand, the entries can be quite specific about these activities. Wild often reports the time an order to march was to be executed. Only in the 1781 entries do we find descriptions of activities that are recognizable as military maneuvers.

-- Wild marched a long way over his years in the army. The bigger picture of where he was marching from and to is often not clear in the diary entries because of Wild’s day-to-day perspective. Perhaps he often didn’t know the planned destination of his regiment’s marching orders. His first entry, on August 7, 1776, appears to mark the beginning of his military experience—getting inoculated against smallpox and marching (apparently from Boston) to Roxbury. Only in 1781 do his entries more clearly note the vicinity of his marching (including mentions of Richmond, Petersburg, and Chickahominy, VA and then the James River, York, and Gloucester).

-- Although Wild marched and marched, he and his fellow troops were twice transported by boat, both in 1781, first from Annapolis to someplace in Virginia and second from York(town) to someplace up the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, from which they marched through “Prince Town” to someplace in New Jersey or New York, where they again were boated up the Hudson River, past West Point. At this point, in December 1781, the diary entries cease, so we don’t learn what Wild’s destination was and whether he was actually on his way home.

-- For all the time Wild served—and marched—in the Revolutionary army, he was only rarely exposed to the violence and death of actual combat, and mostly in 1781. This certainly is not the outcome for many military men, but it does illustrate the great amount of time in which military men in this war were involved in much more mundane activities—and much safer activities, except to the extent that illnesses sickened and killed them.

-- The diary documents that Wild obtained leave to return home at least twice during the time of the diary entries. During these short respites, his entries reflect a very different kind of life, telling of visits with friends, dining at favorite restaurants, etc. Soon, however, he was immersed again in his army life.

-- One of Wild’s diary notebooks (between December 1777and June 1778) is interestingly different from the others—it contains brief printed messages up the sides of the pages, through which Wild wrote his diary entries, at 90 degrees from the direction of the messages. The latter are moral homilies of the kind that might be found in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Just a few of them were repeated in sequence through the notebook. Examples include “Good thoughts and good Books are best companions,” “Experience with Instruction is the best way to Perfection,” and “Show faithfulness to your friend and Equity to all men.”

Several specific quotes:

-- December 25, 1776 was a marching day but an atypical one because Wild seems to have been marching alone and because this was Christmas Day: “This [day] clear and very cold. I set out at Day Lite and traveled 6 miles and stopt at one Whites and got some breakfast there. Traveled to Landtows [?] Camp. I stopt thear and got Some Drink. Then set out and traveled to one Coffins in Cavendish whear I Stopt for that night. I could get no supper thear But Lodgd on the floor.” Today, there is a Cavendish, VT located SE of Rutland, some distance east of Lake George and Ticonderoga. Whether this is where Wild was walking around foraging for food on Christmas Day, and, if so, why he and his army were camped so far east from the N-S corridor of the war theater, are not clear. Where the diary is not silent about location, it often raises more questions than it answers about Wild’s whereabouts.

-- Wild’s creative spelling is well illustrated in one 1777 entry naming the “city of brotherly love.” His unique spelling is “Phylladefa.” By 1781, he had learned to spell it almost “correctly,” “Pheladelphia.”

-- When stationed in Rhode Island in 1778, he began to report on frequent visits to a “Metting House.” In this case, his spelling was quite consistent. Also consistent were his entries of having heard a “sarmon” at metting.

-- Although not experiencing it himself, Wild recorded, while in Rhode Island, a story he heard of war violence. This entry is quite unique throughout the diary. For some reason, it caught his attention on August 27, 1778: “Last evening there was A Cannon Shot fir’d from the Enemy’s lines: Wich Entered A house of one of the Juhabelenks [??] and struck an Infant as it Was Sucking at its Mothers Bresst. It tore the Infant to peases but Did not hurt the Mother but Wonded an Eaged Woman in the Same house—”. Even here, Wild describes an instance of chance death among noncombatant civilians rather than the infantry charges and artillery duels of classic military battles, which he apparently did not experience.

-- Only in 1781 while in Virginia did he begin to observe, get near to, and comment on real combat. Still, his diary entries do not reveal his direct involvement in infantry combat, although he does record deaths and wounded in his immediate vicinity, sometimes in relation to artillery activities (perhaps he was assigned to an artillery unit, although I did not find any direct evidence of this). Even this later recognition of the violence of combat is reported as if from a distance, dispassionately, in a matter-of-fact manner. (Maybe this the nature of a war diary, in which the writer can’t afford to let himself get emotional about the carnage in writing. I don’t know.)

-- According to the MHS summary of the diary, Wild is said to have spent the winter of 1777-78 with the American troops at Valley Forge. This is difficult to verify from the manuscript because many of the entries during this period are difficult, if not impossible to read. Most of these entries are short, and many, including Christmas Day 1777, appear to tell of “nothing remarkable.” I could not find or decipher any entries that speak of hardships from cold and/or starvation. By the next winter, when Wild seems to have been stationed at a camp on the Delaware River, conditions appear to have been almost comfortable. In an unusual entry, he wrote on January 3, 1779 about partying. “…between 6 &7 OClock we had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Sam [??] Maj [and] Susanah Walker Enter into the Blissful State of Marage.” After cake and dinner were served, we “…spent the Evening Very Agreably Till near 10 OClock at Wich Time the Camp Began to Retire.”

-- In September 1781, the diary entries begin reading more like a history book. The entire entry for September 1 reads as follows: “[?] perfect weather. Remained in camp all Day. We have intelligence that his Excellency Genl Washington, with a large body of troops is on his march to join our little army. We are likewise assured of the arrival of a French Fleet (at the mouth of the York River) consisting of 28 sail of the line commanded by his Excellency the Count De-Grass, this fleet has 4000 land troops on board commanded by the Marquis St Simon.” Perhaps Wild copied or adapted this from a written report (as he did in other cases—see below). The writing style certainly is quite different from his usual less developed use of the English language. On September 5, Wild wrote “The enemy have retired into York which they are fortifying with all possible Expedition, the river being completely block’d up by the French Fleet.” On September 28, he wrote “We proceeded about 7 [maybe 3?] miles where the roads parted, the American army taking the wright and the French the left proceeded within about two miles of York.” During the subsequent siege, he wrote on October 17 “…firing commenced on both sides as usual.” Then, on the very next day, he noted briefly without comment that “Articles Capitulation warre agreed on & signed.”

Diary Notes

Following the end of the diary are found a few notes with dates reflecting tidbits of Wild’s life between 1790 and 1792, back home in Braintree:

-- October 14, 1790: notes on six local, civil trials for which he was serving as a juror.

-- August 29, 1792: notes on a Boston town meeting in which the business was a general inoculation of the population against small pox.

-- November 1 and November 24, 1792: diary entries of sorts telling that “brother Saml Heyward sailed for Charleston (SC)” and that a severe storm had occurred in Braintree. A few additional entries are unreadable.

Copies of documents pertaining to the York and Gloucester siege and British surrender (1781)

For reasons not explained in the manuscript, Wild copied, apparently verbatim, the texts of public documents of interest to him.

-- Regulations for the Siege of York & Gloucester, began 1 Oct 1781 (54 articles requiring 23 pages of manuscript to copy)

-- Yorktown Articles of Capitulation (incomplete, including only articles 1 through 3 and the title for article 4)

-- A General Return of prisoners Surrendered to George Washington at York and Gloucester by Lieut. General Lord Cornwallis, 19 Oct 1781 (a chart of the number of troops, by category, who surrendered, totaling 7,247, including 6,039 “Rank and File;” note that the chart has two pages, which are separated in the microfilm by several pages of poetry (see below)).


Later in life, Wild apparently mastered the written language sufficiently to become a poet of sorts (unless he copied these poems form another source, which I did not research). Three poems of several stanzas each are entitled [?] Dear Myra, Banks of the Dee, and “New Song.” A few other poems have no titles. A few other pages look more like prose, as written out, but apparently also are poetry.

Copies of documents pertaining to troop compensation and General Washington’s response, etc. (1783)

As a long-time veteran in the Massachusetts Militia and a part of General Washington’s Revolutionary War army, Wild apparently felt strongly on the issue of troop compensation. He at least followed, and may have actively participated in, a bit of a tiff within the military over military pay that occurred when Washington was keeping his headquarters in Newburgh, NY in late 1782 and early 1783.

It is possible that Wild was assigned at that time to HQ and had access to the documents he copied, which stray beyond the tiff to other matters as well. For instance, he quotes an extract from Washington’s “order” of June 7, 1783 passing on to the army the English translation of a letter by La Chevalier Le Luzerne, “Minister of France,” which expresses the King’s thanks for the American effort in the great victory at Yorktown. In another “letter” dated January 23, 1783, Washington tells the army of favorable prospects after the fall of Charleston, SC. (Note that the documents are not arranged chronologically.)

The documents concerning the tiff begin with a petition by officers in the army to Congress dated December 1, 1782. It is lengthy (8 large manuscript pages), flowery in language, and appears to catalog hardships of the troops and seek ongoing compensation (what we would call pensions). Later documents suggest that the concrete suggestion was for half pay for life. Note that I did not read the petition carefully.

In March 1783, a flurry of communications took place as a part of the tiff. As Washington saw it, a number of officers had improperly met without authorization and had sought to recruit and involve other officers in their scheme to petition Congress for redress of grievances. In response on March 11, he called an “official” meeting of officers to discuss the situation. The “anonymous” author of the initial petition etc. responded on March 12 with a letter to the officers. On March 15, Washington responded in writing, saying that what was going on was unmilitary and not within the rules. Prior to this, he had already written a long letter to Congress, dated February 27, seeking to prove that he had the interest of his soldiers at heart.

Meanwhile, the senior officers of the army jointly issued their own resolution of support for their commander in chief and for Congress, signed by General Horatio Gates. Congress soon took up the matter but proposed, on March 30, a plan for full pay for five years, including 6% interest. Apparently the troops didn’t like this alternative. On March 18, the officers of the Massachusetts Line had met to approve the half-pay-for-life proposal.

This whole episode is well documented by historians. The fact that Wild preserved in his papers a large number of documents pertaining to it, carefully copied by hand, is interesting as a reflection of what Wild thought important in his own life.

The copied documents conclude with a few more about the ending of the war—an April 18 order in which Washington distributes to the army the news of the cessation of hostilities and the April 19 peace resolution of Congress.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at tatum@dlar.org

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