“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” It’s a quote frequently attributed to General Douglas MacArthur, but it’s really from a Gene Autry song. And while there’s poetry to the words, some old soldiers neither die nor fade away – they’re left for dead and come back kicking. Such is (part of) the legend of one of America’s greatest and yet less commonly remembered Revolutionary War heroes, Samuel Whittemore.
Samuel Whittemore was born in England in 1695, 75 years after the Pilgrims made their mark at Plymouth Rock. Not much is known about his earliest years, but we do know he came to the Colonies in the 1740’s as a member of His Majesty’s Royal Regiment of Dragoons. Some historians say he was a captain of the Dragoons, but some don’t, and there’s no way to know for sure – so let’s go ahead and assume he was a captain, even if it was like Captain America was, in name only. The Dragoons were widely known and feared for their brutality; as an elite cavalry unit they had a reputation for impaling people on lances and filling them full of lead musket balls – even after they were dead. The fact that Whittemore began his adult career as a Dragoon should have been a warning to those who would later underestimate our stone-cold badass.
It was 1745 when Whittemore came to North America to fight in King George’s War, and as a captain he saw a fair bit of action. He was part of the Siege of Louisbourg, an assault on a fort that was a vital part of the peace negotiations. It was a win for the colonial militia as well as the British forces with them, and Whittemore proved his mettle, big time. He charged into battle at the head of his men, rather than hiding behind them, rushing the still-somewhat-frozen shores to beat the you-know-what out of the French. When the dust settled, the 50-year-old emerged from the wreckage with an ornate longsword he hadn’t had prior to battle, and when asked about it, he said he took it from the hands of a Frenchman who, he said, “died suddenly.” Perhaps Whittemore’s middle name was “Suddenly?”
Much to what must have been Whittemore’s eternal consternation, Fort Louisbourg was returned to the French as part of the peace treaty with the British, and in 1758, he had to go back again to kick some serious tail. Yet although an unlucky-number-13-years had passed, he and his fearsome crusaders would win once again, during a little thing called the French and Indian War and the Siege of Louisbourg, 1758 (if this had taken place today, it would have some ridiculous sequel name, like Louisbourg Part Deux). Of course, names weren’t big at that time, because although here in America it was called the French and Indian War, it was called the Seven Years’ War in France, Canada, and the UK – which makes no sense whatsoever, because it actually lasted for 9 years. But I digress. Anyway, Whittemore and the others fought valiantly, reducing the French to tears and taking the fort – again – which led directly to the end of the French colonial era in Atlantic Canada, which led to the loss of Quebec, which led to the French losing their hold in North America. Granted, Whittemore didn’t exactly chase the French from our continent single-handedly, but he certainly played a pivotal role.
If you’ve done your math, you know Whittemore was 64 when he trounced the French at Fort Louisbourg the second time, and if you think he was ready to retire, you’d be wrong. Four years passed; he was 68, and it was time for, you guessed it, the Indian Wars, a particularly bloody chapter in American history. He once again played a vital role, this time battling against Chief Pontiac. Pontiac’s War lasted 3 years and took place in the Great Lakes region; multiple tribes banded together to fight against the British and settlers in hopes of forcing them out. Horrific brutality took place on both sides, and in one gruesome battle, Whittemore found himself – at 68 – in violent hand-to-hand combat. When it was over, he took a beautifully inscribed matched pair of dueling pistols off the body – and if you pause to consider how the fallen man most likely obtained those pistols, you’ll be thankful to the stone-cold badass all over again. In addition to the pistols, he returned home on what was described as one of the “finest” stallions his hometown had ever seen, and he never let on what happened to the old nag he’d headed to war astride.
At this point, he’d served in not one but three wars in our young Colonies, and he must have decided he really liked it, because he stayed. He settled in Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts, and in the course of his life he had two wives (separately) and a number of children – some say 8 and others say “a lot,” at least by today’s standards. By this time, he was absolutely convinced his children and his children’s children, and so on, should have a free country that wasn’t subject to the whims of the controlling bullies across the water in his country of birth, England. He began fighting for patriotism in the only way he could at that time – verbally – and had a few escapades along the way.
But wait, there’s more.
The moment Samuel Whittemore is best known for took place on April 19, 1775. His marker says he was 80 – some historians say 78 – in reality, what matters is, despite his advanced age – which was even more advanced then than it would be today – he had the heart of a lion. Remember, Whittemore wanted the Colonies to have freedom, so he was vehemently against the British forces battling to keep the early Americans under King George’s thumb. And he was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen.
On the day in question, the Battles of Lexington and Concord had just ended, and British forces had been (eventually) whipped by the Colonials. It was officially the start of the Revolutionary War, and Americans were going to make their mark as a people who fight tooth-and-nail for what they believe in. As the British made their retreat, they were plagued (read: killed) along the way by sniping colonials; it was a fantastic example of both skillful marksmanship and blind luck that led to the Americans gaining the reputation of being ruthless, down-and-dirty fighters, and Whittemore was going to increase that rep tenfold.
When the British came near Whittemore’s farm, he was, of course, expected not to engage them. He was a mild-mannered farmer, right? Not even close. Historians say he grabbed his famous dueling pistols and musket – Whittemore wasn’t going to let the British pass by his home without giving them a little stone-cold treatment. Two versions exist here – one says he told his concerned family to stay indoors and await his return, the other says his family had fled for safety’s sake and he refused to go along – but either way, he was out for blood.
On Mystic Street, near what is today the corner of Chestnut Street, he hunkered down behind a stone wall. There were Minutemen, as there were all along the British path, and some of them felt the elderly man should go to safety, or at least a better hiding spot, but he refused. From that spot, he ambushed the British Grenadiers of the 47th Regiment, at the age of 80 (or 78), with an apparent steel spine.
Whittemore knew how to make a stand. When the British were upon him, he stood from his hiding place and calmly fired his musket, killing a British soldier. Then he drew his dueling pistols and, like a true stone-cold badass, our hero aimed, fired, and killed a second British soldier – then aimed, fired, and mortally wounded a third. By this time, the much-younger and really-pissed-off British were coming for him, and he was down to his sword – yes, the French one he’d so famously obtained decades earlier – and they were on him.
The British meant to kill the elderly man right there on the side of the road. One of them emptied his Brown Bess into Whittemore’s face; the round tore through his cheek, knocking him flat. Others beat him with their fists and feet while others used their bayonets to stab and slash at him viciously. When they felt they’d sufficiently brutalized him, and were confident of his impending death, the spineless Brits who overpowered an old man walked away. Whittemore had been shot point-blank in the face with a .75 caliber musket ball, bayoneted 13 times, and clubbed repeatedly. Any normal man would have died.
As the British continued on their way, Whittemore raised himself up from the pool of his own blood and began trying to load his musket to give them a parting shot. The villagers, who had hidden during the assault, came out when they felt the British were far enough away, and were shocked to find him attempting a second fight. They used a door to transport the obviously dying Whittemore to the nearby Cooper Tavern, and a Doctor Nathaniel Tufts set about treating his many wounds. But it was quickly clear to the doctor he couldn’t save the old man; he should have already bled to death. Stating it wasn’t even worth dressing the wounds, Tufts stopped, but the villagers begged him to try, and so he did. When he was done, Whittemore’s still form was carried home, where it was assumed he would soon die.
But as we all know, American heroes are some of the baddest of the bad and the toughest of the tough, and when Whittemore went home, he didn’t die. In fact, he recovered, and lived for 18 more years before passing away at the age of 98 on February 2, 1793. He was asked whether he regretted his actions on that day in April, and he must have been disgusted to be asked when he replied “No! I would take the same chance all over again.”
Whittemore lived long enough to see his hopes and dreams reach fruition. He lived to see the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and saw another badass, George Washington, become our nation’s first president. And, best of all, he lived with the sure knowledge he’d always fought courageously and tirelessly for what he believed in. And that, my friend, is the mark of a real American hero: honor.
Author’s Note: Massachusetts recognized Whittemore as an “Official State Hero” in 2005. The memorial marker above stands in his honor in Arlington, Massachusetts, and you can visit the Butterfield-Whittemore House in that same city as well as walk the streets where our hero once took what almost became his last stand.
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